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Economic and dam related articles

Study: Alternatives to Dams Affordable

by Staff
Idaho Statesman, January 19, 2004

Conservationists say farmers could use rail to move grain

Upgrading railroads and grain elevators to accommodate grain shipments if the four lower Snake River dams were breached could cost the same as one year of maintaining those dams, conservationists contend.

Some fish biologists believe removing the four dams is the most certain way to recover endangered salmon. Breaching them would restore 140 miles of free-flowing river, but end barge traffic on the lower Snake River.

All the retrofitting on the railroads and other facilities might cost no more than $43.8 million, report American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United and the National Wildlife Federation.

“Considered in context, the costs identified here are very modest,” said Rob Masonis, regional director for American Rivers. “An updated rail system would offer farmers an affordable and effective way to ship grain to market, protect existing businesses in southeastern Washington, and improve the prospects for attracting new business.”

The groups said river conditions have only worsened since the adoption of an “aggressive non-breach” salmon recovery plan in 2000. U.S. District Judge James Redden rejected that plan last May and told the federal government to develop a plan that complies with the law.

The groups commissioned transportation economists BST Associates to examine what infrastructure improvements would be necessary to provide a comparable transportation system for Northwest farmers shipping their goods to market in Portland.

The end of barging would result in about 1.2 extra 52-car trains headed up and down the Columbia River Gorge each day during the height of the grain-shipping season, BST found.

Upgrading the rail system to accommodate that would likely require an investment of between $43.8 million and $420 million in rail improvements, grain elevator capacity upgrades, and possibly new railcars.

BST´s low-cost scenario of $43.8 million is in the ballpark of one year´s federal spending on operating and maintaining the lower Snake River dams at $36.5 million.

Even the high-end estimate of $420 million is comparable to the $390 million the federal government has committed to spending on the lower Snake River dams for salmon over the next decade.

That does not even consider the new fish spillway devices federal agencies are pushing to install at some lower Snake River dams for about $45 million apiece, BST said.

Transportation costs for farmers displaced from the waterway would likely rise by between $3.5 million and $8.7 million per year, or an increase of 2.9 to 7.1 cents per bushel.

The shipping increases would be well within the annual swings of the price of grain, BST said. The price of Washington wheat has ranged between $2.63 and $4.10 per bushel in recent years.

State highway maintenance costs would rise slightly in some states and fall slightly in others. The cumulative impact on state highway budgets would range between a savings of $442,000 and an increase of just under $2 million.

BST cited a Washington state Department of Transportation report concluding that upgrades to the rail transportation system — especially to currently neglected short-line railroads — could improve the economic development opportunities in southeastern Washington.

Some upgrades recommended by the BST report already are paid for due to a recent decision by the Washington Legislature to fund $33.5 million in upgrades to the economically valuable short-line rail system in Washington grain country.

The conservation groups said the lower Snake River transportation study comes in the wake of a 2002 review prepared by RAND Corp. that concluded removing the dams and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, such as wind power, would not damage the region´s economy and could create up to 15,000 new jobs.

Study: Alternatives to Dams Affordable
Idaho Statesman, January 19, 2004

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