Upgrading railroads and grain elevators to accommodate grain shipments displaced from the Snake River if the four lower Snake River dams are removed could cost as little as $43.8 million -- a figure comparable to just one year's federal spending on operating and maintaining the four lower Snake River dams -- according to a study released Jan. 16 by conservationists.
The conservation groups have long said that most science supports the removal of four federal dams on the lower Snake River as the most certain way to recover endangered salmon runs. This would restore 140 miles of free-flowing river, but end barge traffic on the lower Snake River.
The conservationists 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. BST Associates did not evaluate the efficacy of dam removal as a means to recover salmon and steelhead populations.
"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."
BST Associates' key findings include:
Conservationists say these findings are best understood in the context of the following (these comparisons were compiled and analyzed by the conservation organizations that commissioned the study, not BST)
- An end to lower Snake River barging would result in approximately 1.2 extra 52-car trains headed up and down the Columbia River Gorge each day during the height of the grain shipping season;
- Upgrading the rail system to meet this extra traffic would likely require an investment of between $43.8 million and $420 million in rail improvements, grain elevator capacity upgrades, and possibly new railcars;
- Transportation costs for farmers displaced from the waterway would likely rise by between $3.5 million and $8.7 million per year (This translates to an increase of 2.9 to 7.1 cents per bushel according calculations based on BST Associates' data);
- BST cites 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 southeast Washington and prevent lost wages and benefits of $11 million per year;
- State highway maintenance costs would rise slightly in some states and fall slightly in others -- the cumulative impact on affected state highway budgets would range between a savings of $442,000 and an increase of just under $2 million.
- BST's low-cost scenario estimating $43.8 million in rail upgrades is comparable to just one year's federal spending on operating and maintaining the lower Snake River dams at $36.5 million;
- Even the high-end infrastructure scenario 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;
- The above dam operation and salmon program costs don't include new fish spillway devices federal agencies are pushing to install at some lower Snake River dams for roughly $45 million a piece;
- BST's estimated range of $43.8 million to $420 million for transportation system upgrades presents a lower range than a 2002 Army Corps of Engineers estimate of $206.7 million to $541.7 million. These two studies employ different methodologies (see below link to the "Frequently Asked Questions" document for more information);
- Some of the upgrades recommended by the BST report are already funded thanks to a recent decision by the Washington state legislature to fund $33.5 million in upgrades to the economically valuable short-line rail system in Washington grain country, which reduces the amount of new funding needed to upgrade the transportation system;
- The estimated increases in shipping rates of 2.9 to 7.1 cents per bushel are lower than those estimated by the Army Corps in 2002. (BST examined shipping rates from the shippers' perspective, while the Army Corps looked at them from the perspective of transportation providers. For more information, please click on the below link to the fact sheet on shipping rates;
- The average increases in shipping rates would be well within the annual swings of the price of grain. The price of Washington wheat has ranged between $2.63 and $4.10 per bushel in recent years.
FAQs study: www.americanrivers.org/docs/transpofaq.pdf
Necessary Rail System Upgrades: www.americanrivers.org/docs/upgrades.pdf
Impacts on Grain Shipping Rates: www.americanrivers.org/docs/shipping_rates.pdf
Impacts on Highway Expenditures: www.americanrivers.org/docs/highway_costs.pdf
Lower Snake River Transportation Study: www.americanrivers.org/docs/LSR_Transportation_Study_Final_Report.pdf
Conservationists Commission Snake Transportation Study
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 23, 2004
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