SANDPOINT - More than 100 people gathered in a standing room-only City Council chamber Wednesday evening for a facilitated forum on the anticipated increase in coal and oil train traffic through Bonner County.
Local officials, including representatives from the city of Sandpoint and Bonner County, generally took a critical view of an increase in railroad traffic. The railroad painted a more rosy picture.
The local economy would likely suffer marginal negative impacts, according to Sandpoint's Jared Yost, including a decline in property values along the railroad corridor, and other impacts.
Comments and concerns from the audience ranged from at-grade delays that might slow emergency response times, to the potential for explosions similar to that which occurred in a small town in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people.
One panelist, Gary Payton, used an aerial map to highlight the similarities to that rail disaster and Sandpoint. He outlined a blast radius corridor through Kootenai, Ponderay and Sandpoint, where - if one occurred - a blast would destroy sizable portions of those cities.
"The point of these (maps) is to draw attention to potentiality," Payton said.
But that potentiality is slim, according to rail officials. The Quebec accident was the result of a string of human and mechanical failures that led to a runaway train that eventually derailed, causing the fateful explosion. American regulations and self-imposed railroad safety standards would prevent a similar event from happening.
"The biggest emphasis is on safety," said Gus Melonas, BNSF regional director of public affairs.
MRL officials echoed Melonas' statement.
Railroad officials are expecting new federal regulations regarding oil tanker car designs that would increase safety, which they support. Most train cars are not owned by the railroad, but by the companies that are hauling the goods they carry, such as oil cars, referred to as DOT 111 cars.
"We support a stronger car," Melonas said.
Railroad officials downplayed the potential for increased train traffic of either coal or oil, noting it is market forces that dictate increases.
Coal and oil were not expected to be a major part of any increase in train traffic, according to BNSF public affairs director Ross Lane.
"The biggest growing segment is in domestic intermodal," he said, meaning shipments of goods such as lumber or agricultural commodities.
As far as plans to build a second railroad bridge across Lake Pend Oreille, that was more for reasons of efficiency rather than volume, Lane said.
Melonas agreed, noting efficiency would reduce at-grade crossing delays.
"By building a bridge we will eliminate wait-times," he said.