Salmon Study Looks At Cost Of Replacing Snake River Barge Traffic With Rail Line

Thursday, January 22, 2004
Natalie M. Henry, Greenwire reporter

PORTLAND, Ore. --A national transportation research firm has concluded that replacing Snake River barge transportation with rail lines would cost less than previously estimated, adding to the hopes of environmentalists who want to see the river's dams removed to aid salmon recovery. The study by BST Associates of Bothell, Wash., also lends support to environmentalists' claims that the cost of building rail lines along the Snake River is less than ongoing operation and maintenance costs for the lower Snake River dams and less than ongoing salmon recovery costs. Both of these efforts are borne by federal taxpayers.

The study Report.pdf

was commissioned by four environmental groups -- American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation, Idaho Rivers United and the Idaho Wildlife Federation. They and other environmentalists have long pushed for removal of the four lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington to help recover four species of threatened and endangered salmon in the river. But many people who oppose dam removal say the dams provide affordable transportation for grain growers in Eastern Washington and Oregon to move their product to international markets via deep sea ports on the Pacific Coast. Shipping by water is generally considered to be the least expensive means of moving bulk goods over long distances.

The study from BST, which specializes in analysis for the transportation sector, estimates the cost of replacing barges with rail transportation at between $44 million and $420 million, a figure considerably lower than the $206 million to $541 million the Army Corps of Engineers estimated in its own study in 2002. By comparison, the federal government spends $36.5 million annually to operate and maintain the four lower Snake River dams. According to corps figures, the agency plans to spend $390 million over the next 10 years to keep the dams operational. Federal salmon recovery efforts, meanwhile, run about $500 million per year for 12 threatened and endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, including the four on the Snake River. That estimate does not include an estimated $45 million the corps needs to install weirs on the lower Snake River dams to help pass juvenile salmon over the dams without injury, according to American Rivers.

"The federal government has failed for years to recover salmon with the four lower Snake River dams in place," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers. "This study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that it will be simpler and cheaper to remove the lower Snake dams, make the necessary adjustments to our transportation and energy systems, and leave Snake River salmon recovery in the hands of an expert, Mother Nature."

Switching from barge to rail transportation would require upgrading existing rail lines, purchasing more rail cars to carry grain and other agricultural products and modifying grain elevators throughout the region, according to the study. Some of those modifications are already under way via a recent decision by the Washington state legislature to fund $33.5 million in upgrades to the short-line rail system in eastern Washington, including increasing the weight capacity of lines to accommodate heavier cars that are becoming the industry standard.

Despite that investment, barge operators say the study assumes that railroad companies are willing to invest in short-line rail service in eastern Washington, when in fact those railroads have directed resources to other long-distance routes, which yield better profits. "Most people in the grain and port business do not believe there will be rail service available to replace barging," said Glenn Vanselow, director of the Pacific Northwest Waterway Association. One of the nation's largest railroads, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co., has expressed interest in expanding its short-line market in eastern Washington, going so far as to invest millions of dollars to build a new shuttle station to accommodate 110-car trains, as much as four times greater than the capacity of older stations.

In a letter to the Washington state congressional delegation in February 2003, BNSF said it could make money shipping Washington's wheat and barley for an estimated 25 cents a bushel. According to Vanselow of the waterway association, the current transport rate on the river is 1 cent cheaper at 24 cents per bushel. The BST study, meanwhile, estimates that transportation costs for farmers would increase 3 to 7 cents per bushel. Vanselow said the economic impact of a 3 to 7 cent increase in transportation costs would be a huge hit for some farmers, especially in bad years when prices are low. Most farmers would not be able to recover those costs by raising prices, Vanselow added, since prices are set by international markets. Many farmers have federal crop insurance to cover losses, but that cost would then be borne by federal taxpayers, he said. Still, opinions vary over the long-term economic effects of replacing barge transportation with rail. The BST study cites a Washington Department of Transportation report that concluded upgrades to the state's short-line rail system would improve the rural economy in southeast Washington. But according to the corps, removing barge transportation would have significant negative impacts on the regional economy. The new study comes on the heels of a study released in September 2002 by the RAND Corp. That report concluded that not only will removing the lower Snake River dams have little to no effect on the regional economy, but replacing that power source with a combination of renewables, efficiency measures and natural gas would help stabilize volatile Western power markets and could even result in economic benefits for the region (Greenwire

< search-display.cgi?q=&fi le=%2FGreenwire%2Fsearcharchive%2FNewsline%2F2002%2FSept4%2F09040209.htm, Sept. 4, 2002).

Environmental groups also commissioned that report. All told the government has spent well over $3 billion to save salmon, yet despite favorable ocean conditions of late, populations continue to decline in the Snake River. One run, Snake River sockeye, is near extinction. An independent scientific panel estimated in the late 1990s that removing the dams would result in a more than 80 percent chance of recovery for Snake River spring and summer chinook, compared with a less than 50 percent chance with the dams in place. Snake River spring and summer chinook, which numbered 1.5 million a century ago, have fallen to less than 10,000 fish.