- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

SANDPOINT, Idaho (AP) - Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad wants to build a second bridge in northern Idaho to handle an expected increase in traffic that includes coal and oil trains.

The one bridge now at Sandpoint handles about one train every half-hour, a bottleneck for BNSF’s busy Hi-Line that connects the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest.

Montana Rail Link trains also use the single-track bridge that crosses Lake Pend Oreille where it meets the Pend Oreille River.

“It’s known by rail fans as the funnel,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told The Spokesman-Review (https://bit.ly/1uTyNNp) in a story on Wednesday. “And it’s a choke point.”

BNSF wants to build another bridge about 50 feet to the west that would extend about 4,800 feet across the water on piers sunk up to 150 feet into the lake bed. Before beginning, however, the railway would need approval from federal and state agencies. Melonas said the railway would like to build the bridge by 2018.

“This has been the major transportation route for bulk freight since Idaho’s existence, since Washington’s existence,” Melonas said. “The Northwest relies on an efficient rail system, and a new trestle is going to certainly help meet needs going into the future.”

Sandpoint Mayor Carrie Logan said she’s concerned that another bridge, plus plans to add about a mile of parallel tracks through Sandpoint, would increase rail traffic through the city. She said that increases the risk of a train mishap that could lead to deaths or a spill that could pollute drinking water

“It doubles the volume of trains that are going to come through town, basically,” Logan said. “Twice the track, twice the trains. So we’re just going to have the same problem, if not worse.”

Each day, BNSF hauls two to three trains of crude oil from the Bakken oils fields of North Dakota and eastern Montana through Sandpoint, Melonas said. Another three to four coal trains also pass through the town heading west.

If there’s an accident, Logan said, “The initial responder is us because their equipment and personnel are stationed at least two hours away.”

A group that monitors water quality, the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, said it’s concerned because it has collected water samples that show coal from open-air trains has entered the lake.

Melonas said the company plans to place an oil containment trailer in Sandpoint early next year. It’s already added more mobile firefighting foam trailers in the region, he said.

“There’s going to be more traffic whether there’s a bridge or not,” Melonas said, noting the company expects to hit record volumes of freight soon. “This will allow for a more fluid operation.”

The current bridge was built in 1905 and upgraded most recently in 2009. If a new bridge is added, Melonas said, trains would run in each direction and reduce the need to have trains slow or stop as they wait for the OK to cross.

The new bridge, Melonas said, is part of the company’s plan to use the safest technology as the company invests billions of dollars in its network.

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Information from: The Spokesman-Review, https://www.spokesman.com

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