By CHRISTIAN KNIGHT
News staff writer
February 25, 2006
Windsurfers and BNSF Railway can agree on one thing: Doug’s Beach is the perfect site.
The perfect site for windsurfers because it’s 15 minutes east of Hood River and it’s the one place in the Gorge that offers reliable evening wind, waves and a sandy beach.
BNSF Railway likes it because it provides the ideal location for constructing a much-needed passing lane for the increasing number of trains that carry cargo from or to inland America.
And because of BNSF’s strong affinity for this strip of land, which borders Highway 14, the Columbia River Gorge Commission on Feb. 16 approved the rail company’s plan to build a $10 million, 8,400-foot passing lane, known as a siding.
In a 43-page decision, the Gorge Commission approved the plan based on 13 conditions.
BNSF plans to construct this one and-a-half-mile section of track between Highway 14 and the existing track this year.
The resulting squeeze will force windsurfers to parallel park instead of back-in park.
Currently the parking shoulder along Doug’s Beach State Park can hold 175 vehicles, said Martha Bennett, Gorge Commission executive director, if they back-in park.
Parallel parking, however, will eliminate access to 65 to 95 windsurfers a day, according to the Gorge Commission’s report.
And says windsurfer Nelson Lerner, the wait to access Doug’s Beach for windsurfers could be excruciating.
“When a train enters the siding, it’s going to be a long wait,” he said.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melones would not say how long trains could block access to the beach.
If windsurfers do, in fact, decide to run across the tracks rather than wait for a staging train to pass, Melones said BNSF would aggressively pursue trespassing charges.
“All railroad properties are no trespassing,” he said. “We must strictly enforce that. We aren't enforcing the trespassing policy to be corporate bullies, we're doing it to save lives.”
To keep windsurfers from the paths of 55-mph traffic traveling along Highway 14, Washington State Parks has petitioned to the Washington State Department of Transportation to build an estimated $25,000-guardrail.
“The parking alone is bad enough,” Lerner said. “What’s going to happen is people will just stop coming. Slowly, they will.”
Lerner says he intends to appeal the Gorge Commission’s decision.
The deadline for any appeal is March 17.
“We’re not happy about having to approve the project,” said said Bennett, the decision’s signator. “I think the appeals will test the legal question of whether we have the authority to deny (BNSF).”
To some extent, some of that authority lays with the 12 Gorge Commissioners who will evaluate the appeals process.
Even if the Commissioners agree with Lerner and the appeals, however, it is not clear whether that agreement can force BNSF to construct their $10 million siding project in one of the three alternate locations the rail company considered – east of Rowland Lake, Chamberlain Lake and Murdock.
“The railroad has authorities under the Surface Transportation Act, which exempts it from state and federal requirements,” Bennett said. “But it still has to comply with environmental laws and regulations and the management plan has power of federal regulation. We believe they have to comply with the Scenic Area Act. But I do believe we have limited rights to deny the project.”
BNSF spokesman Melones admitted working with local agencies, including the Gorge Commission, is more of a formality.
“We are committed to working through the necessary process,” he said.
The rail company decided on the Doug’s Beach location because it made the most strategic sense, Melones said. It was the most compatible for engineering and helped the company stay well within its budget.
“We have selected this location,” Melones said. “It works with our strategic plans.”
In 1999, BNSF proposed similar plans to construct a siding at the same location. But the rail company withdrew its plans when it learned they would be negatively impacting “cultural resources” of the area.
But, says Melones, BNSF has had its eye on the Doug’s Beach location for a long time.
BNSF first built the railroad through the Gorge in 1907 — before the Scenic Act, before the Gorge Commission and before a windsurfer named Doug Campbell first began sailing from the sandy beach.
And since then, traffic along the rail has accelerated to a frenetic pace.
In 1990, for example, BNSF could expect 30 trains to travel through the Gorge in a 24-hour period.
In 2006, they are expecting 45 to 50 trains on any given day. And projections show that number will be increasing steadily.
BNSF’s Gorge railway is the second busiest railway in Washington state, second only to the Puget Sound to Portland line, which Union Pacific and BNSF share.
“We have never seen the amount of tonage that is moving through the Gorge today,” Melones said.
As a result, Melones said, BNSF has invested aggressively into itself.
In the last decade, it has significantly enhanced its railway in at least five locations from Portland to Pasco and Spokane.
“This is the first capital investment in the Columbia Gorge,” Melones said. “But with today’s needs, it’s essential.”
Most of these capital investments are aimed at increasing capacity along the railways or relieving the increasing pressure on them.
If an agency is stuck between a haybail and an arrow, that agency is the Washington State Parks.
It acquired the land at Doug’s Beach on a land swap from the Department of Natural Resources in an attempt to provide access to the growing number of windsurfers that were showing up to the beach everyday.
But it still needed the permission of BNSF to cross the rail.
It has achieved this with a year-to-year easement, which allows it and the people who use it to access the park without trespassing.
But that easement expired at the end of the last windsurfing season.
If the Gorge Commission or some other ruling agency blocks BNSF’s intention to construct a siding at that location, BNSF could revoke access to the beach altogether.
“Until we get an easement signed, technically it’s probably true,” said Rich Davis, Washington State Parks area manager for Doug’s Beach State Park. “Commerce trumps everything. People may not like that but we’ve got a lot of parks that are near railroads. We have to be good neighbors. It could have been much worse. We’ve been dealt lemons and we’re just trying to make lemonade.”
Melones would not speculate on whether BNSF would renew its easement agreement with the State Parks should an appeal block the siding project at Doug’s Beach.
Davis is appealing to BNSF for a 25- to 30-year easement.
He’s also asking the railroad to help cover the costs of building the guardrail along Highway 14 and to help engineer it while the rail company builds its own siding.