October 5, 2006 in Business

BNSF hopes to snow taxpayers

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

With the federal government more than $8 trillion in debt and still digging, Congress continues to bestow blessings on special interests like the oil companies. So maybe it should not be a surprise another of our nation’s most prosperous industries has stepped up for a sliver of federal assistance.

The Federal Land Recreational Visitor Protection Act of 2005, H.R. 2039 purports to be an effort to reduce the toll avalanches take on backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, who each year move into more remote and more dangerous areas. That’s a commendable objective. Fatalities have almost tripled in the last decade despite efforts to make the public aware of the dangers posed by avalanches, and the warnings issued when snow and weather conditions are especially hazardous.

The bill would establish a program that would focus on identifying and mitigating avalanche risk, create an advisory committee, and centralize the munitions used to blast away dangerous snow and ice accumulations. All good things. But it would also award grants, which often are a sign someone has their hand out.

In this case, an additional red flag is the names of the bill’s sponsors: Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both R-Alaska. Finding these two along the yellow brick road has become all too common for American taxpayers. The $223 million Bridge to Nowhere was their idea.

Also, an avalanche expert employed by the Alaska Railroad Corp. helped draft the bill, but that snowbound system spends only about $250,000 on avalanche control annually. It’s another railroad, BNSF, that has the bigger avalanche problem.

BNSF’s main line hugs the steep southern and western boundaries of Glacier National Park so closely federal snow frequently ends up on its private tracks. Although BNSF maintains about five miles of snowsheds through the area, about one mile of track is exposed. Two years ago, snow derailed a train, and there have been other service interruptions.

Each one can be costly. The track carries more than 40 trains a day, and a blockage can snarl traffic all the way to Puget Sound. Thanks to the nation’s prosperity and the increased imports and exports through Portland and Seattle, BNSF is moving record volumes of cargo.

And receiving bodacious revenues.

In just the first six months of 2006, shippers delivered $7.1 billion to BNSF coffers. Net income was $880 million. To its credit, the railroad also spent more than $1 billion during those same six months on capital improvements.

So why has BNSF showed up in Washington, D.C., with a hand out for a piece of a potential $75 million in grants for avalanche-control assistance?

The railroad would rather shoot its way out of its avalanche problem than build new snowsheds. Spokesman Gus Melonas says the structures are not only expensive, perhaps more than $100 million, but construction would also obstruct traffic.

Using cannons to loosen dangerous snow is effective and cheap, he says.

Real cheap if taxpayers are footing the bill.

Officials from the departments of Agriculture and Interior are not falling for this railroad song. They say the grants program should be a dealbreaker, and they are correct. Both departments have billions of dollars in maintenance of their own to catch up on. That $75 million would go at least part way towards repairing hundreds of poor Forest Service roads, for example.

In the 19th century, the federal government granted the railroads millions of acres of land to encourage construction of the great transcontinental systems we use to this day. But that largesse should have been the end of the line.

Unfortunately, this legislation passed the Senate with hardly a look-see. A House subcommittee heard testimony back in July, but the measure has yet to clear that body. This is a bill that needs to be sidetracked.

BNSF is trying to snow the taxpayers.


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