Here’s why I-5 is such a mess in Seattle area, and what keeps us moving at all



BNSF Inside Track – Special Edition May 10, 2017

Setting the Record Straight on Diesel Emissions

It was disappointing to read the final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that the Washington Department of Ecology released on the Millennium Bulk Terminals project, and the subsequent public tweets from the agency concerning this document.  The FEIS makes several faulty assumptions about BNSF Railway’s operations, resulting in conclusions that overstate, in a counterproductive manner, the potential health risks associated with railroad operations in Washington, and the United States.  Neither Ecology nor its Director attempted to reach out to BNSF to discuss these operational assumptions before publishing the FEIS.

The FEIS fails to disclose key data and analysis upon which its conclusions are based.  From our perspective, there is a “black box” when data is not published in the body of an FEIS or in its appendices to allow the public to understand the basis of conclusions. This lack of transparency is contrary to the goals and objectives of the State Environmental Policy Act.  The FEIS also added a new health risk analysis for rail that was not included in the draft EIS.  Our biggest concern with this new analysis is that it suggests diesel particulate emissions from locomotives substantially increase cancer risks in communities that are located by railroad tracks in Washington.  No credible scientific studies have ever shown this to be the case.

In fact, a 2010 Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) study evaluated adding eight daily round-trip passenger rail trips from the Columbia River to the Canadian border (the same number of daily trips as projected at full operation of Millennium). According to that study, “increased rail service would not result in substantial noise level increases or violations of ambient air quality standards, or other environmental health hazards.” The same study also said, “With the provision of faster and more reliable service, the increase in ridership will result in a decrease in auto fuel used and emissions from passenger vehicles, as diesel-powered passenger trains use less fuel and have lower emissions than the equivalent number of passenger highway vehicles.”

Nowhere in the WSDOT study was a concern about cancer from locomotives identified as a “key finding.” Will these findings be applied to the proposed commuter trains proposed for Sound Transit 3 (ST3)? Their locomotives are the same or are very similar locomotives to the ones that move freight around the state. It is hard to imagine that the different conclusions concerning risks from passenger locomotives could be based on solid scientific analysis and not politics.

The so-called analysis is alarming as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not, and has never, published a risk assessment method for exposure to diesel exhaust. In addition, for many years, the EPA has regulated both the content of diesel fuel and emissions of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from locomotives and trucks. For locomotives, EPA regulations are based on progressively more stringent “tiers.” The most recent locomotive standards are “Tier 4” standards and apply to all locomotives built or remanufactured since 2015. EPA standards for locomotives and trucks are phased in over time and balance the costs and benefits of further improvements. This means that the percentage of the overall locomotive and truck fleets that meet the newest, most stringent standards is constantly rising as older locomotives and trucks are replaced by newer units (the same approach that has worked well for automobiles over the past 40 years). In fact, BNSF’s locomotives are 30- to 40-year assets that are remanufactured to the current standard every 6 to 8 years to enhance their operational efficiency and proactively reduce emissions.

The FEIS did not take into account in its air emissions analysis that BNSF’s locomotive fleet is the newest and cleanest in North America. The FEIS used a national fleet average to estimate emissions rather than using BNSF specific data. Likewise, it assumed continuous locomotive operation despite the fact that 98 percent of BNSF’s fleet have idle-control devices. Idle-control mechanisms installed on locomotives reduce air emissions and fuel consumption by automatically shutting down locomotives that aren’t being used. All new locomotives we purchase are equipped with this technology, and we will continue to retrofit for the very few remaining older locomotives.

It is also important to note that a March 2015 study by an economist at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) compiled data from a variety of sources to estimate the unpriced external costs – that is, costs to society not covered by taxes – associated with freight transport by rail and truck. The study estimated that the external costs associated with emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide are three to five times higher for trucks than for railroads. In other words, moving freight by rail rather than by highway significantly reduces these emissions. It also reduces fuel consumption.

Freight rail is by far the most environmentally sensitive ways to move goods on land. For example, intermodal train effectively takes the equivalent of 280 trucks off the highway, which saves four times the fuel of trucking and reduces emissions, highway traffic congestion and maintenance for public highways.

It is important to provide analyses and make assumptions with the most current and accurate information, and to communicate this information in a responsible, unbiased manner to the public. The simple truth is that BNSF’s investment in technology, new locomotives and efficient operations are helping to reduce emissions. We are part of the solution for a sustainable supply chain – and helping to grow Washington’s trade-dependent economy.

Have a Question for BNSF?

Do you have a question about BNSF or rail in the Pacific Northwest that you would like addressed in future issues of Inside Track?  Send them to insidetrackPNW@bnsf.com.

This is not a test: I-405 peak-use shoulder lane opens April 24


Good news for travelers on northbound Interstate 405 in the south Snohomish County area: In less than two weeks, you’ll have a new option for your afternoon commute.

At 2 p.m. Monday, April 24, the I-405 northbound peak-use shoulder lane will officially open to general-purpose traffic on the 1.8 mile stretch between State Route 527 and I-5. Between now and then, we’re wrapping up our testing of the new electronic signs that will control the lanes, so you might still see some test messages, symbols and colors as you drive through the area.

A green arrow like this will indicate if the new I-405 peak-use shoulder lane is open to traffic.

Originally, the Washington State Legislature funded this project with an expected opening date in 2018. However, with approval to use revenues from the I-405 express toll lanes earlier, we were able to complete the project more than a year sooner than expected.

How do I use the lane?
As the name suggests, general-purpose traffic and buses will now be able use the northbound right shoulder as an additional lane during times with the heaviest congestion—in this case, the weekday afternoon commute. That means there will effectively be three regular lanes and one express toll lane in this area.The peak-use shoulder lane will generally be open during the afternoon peak period but will be dynamically controlled, so be sure to check the overhead electronic signs before entering the lane.

A green arrow will indicate that the lane is open, and a red “X” will indicate that the lane is closed, similar to the signs you see today on I-5 near downtown Seattle. To learn more about what you might see on the signs, check out our previous blog on the subject.

During off-peak hours and weekends, the shoulder will remain closed so that crews still have space to perform maintenance and law enforcement and emergency services can use the shoulder as needed.

As with all highway operations, our traffic management center will be actively monitoring the shoulder lane. If there is a collision or incident, we will be able to close the lane in order to allow emergency services to respond. There will also be four paved emergency pullouts in the area of the peak-use shoulder lane.

Although this is the first electronically controlled shoulder lane of its kind in the area, you may have noticed that US 2 in Snohomish County also allows traffic on the shoulder during specific hours indicated on posted signs. For more information on other peak-use shoulder lanes in the region, check out the WSDOT congestion page.
Why did we add a lane in this area?

There have always been northbound bottlenecks at the SR 522 and SR 527 interchanges because we simply don’t have enough lane capacity to handle the huge growth that south Snohomish County has been experiencing.

At the SR 527 interchange, an estimated 1,000 vehicles an hour enter northbound I-405 during the afternoon commute. For perspective, that’s more than two full Kirkland Costco parking lots emptying on to northbound I-405 from SR 527 every hour. The peak-use shoulder lane will offer a new place for some of those vehicles to go without needing to merge directly into the already crowded I-405 lanes.

After we opened the dual express toll lane in September 2015 between downtown Bellevue and SR 522, we found that traffic is flowing more smoothly through Kirkland, where we have five total lanes. But north of SR 522, where we did not add any new capacity and have only three lanes, we’re still seeing heavy traffic. (We’re looking at longer-term solutions for this area, more on that below.)

As a result, most trips between Bothell and Lynnwood on northbound I-405 are now slower during the afternoon commute than they were before express toll lanes. The peak-use shoulder lane is just one of several identified improvements that we have been able to make over the past year and a half based on driver feedback.

What’s next?
We’ll be closely monitoring how the peak-use shoulder lane affects traffic in the coming months, but we know that this area of I-405 still needs more help. That’s why we’re continuing to look at how to fund and build additional improvements between SR 522 and I-5, including extending the second express toll lane farther north and improving the SR 522 and SR 527 interchanges to help traffic move more smoothly.

The Legislature gave us initial funding in the 2016 budget to study these improvements, and the governor’s budget for next year includes $5 million more to continue our engineering. Especially with Sound Transit planning to launch a new I-405 Bus Rapid Transit system from Lynnwood to Tukwila by 2024, we know it’s critical that we help keep traffic moving and provide travelers with a more reliable trip option. In short, the peak-use shoulder lane isn’t the end of the road—it’s just the start of what we hope will be a series of big improvements for the north end of I-405.

By Craig Smiley – Copyright WSDOT © 2017. Some rights reserved