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Rail uncertainty

A school bus stops before proceeding over an ungated railroad crossing on Arden Road, on its way to Otis Orchards Elementary School last month. (J. BART RAYNIAK)
A school bus stops before proceeding over an ungated railroad crossing on Arden Road, on its way to Otis Orchards Elementary School last month. (J. BART RAYNIAK)

Plan to abandon track stalls crossing upgrades

In the past 10 years nothing has been done about railroad crossings in Otis Orchards that have no crossing arms or signals, in spite of increasing road traffic and several significant accidents.

In December, a Union Pacific switch engine hit a car driven by Maria L. Walsh, 44, of Otis Orchards, as she crossed the tracks at Arden Road. Traffic has increased on Arden in recent years with the construction of a new church and traffic heading to nearby Otis Orchards Elementary School.

Bill Clifford, assistant fire marshall of the Spokane Valley Fire Department, said he has kept in touch with Walsh and her family after firefighters responded to the accident. “I kept in contact with the family to see if there was something we could do,” he said. “We don’t do this all the time. I felt the need to do something for the family.”

The Spokane Valley Fire Benevolent Association has donated money to help pay medical bills and also purchased gift cards to be used for groceries. Clifford said Walsh is now at home recovering from her injuries, which included skull fractures, spinal fractures and rib fractures.

“She doesn’t remember a whole lot about that day,” he said. “Her memory is coming back, but she’s going through speech therapy and physical therapy.”

In the late 1990s Spokane County wanted to install signals and crossing arms at multiple unsecured railroad crossings on the Union Pacific Railroad line in the Otis Orchards area, including Ashton, Arden, Lynden, Kenney and Garry roads.

Years later almost all those crossings haven’t been touched after a legal settlement was reached involving Spokane County, Union Pacific and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

According to settlement documents, the state commission wanted to close the Corrigan, Arden and Lynden crossings while Union Pacific wanted to shut down the Ashton crossing. A settlement among the three entities in 2000 allowed the county to install signals at the Kenney Road crossing and left the other crossings unchanged.

“There was interest in the past to close and upgrade those crossings but an order was never issued by UTC to that extent,” said Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt. “Whereas UP would be willing to work with the local road authorities and UTC to upgrade or close those crossings, nothing is currently planned.”

The Spokane Regional Transportation Council is making progress in its “Bridging the Valley” plan to install railroad underpasses and overpasses on some major intersections.

The reason nothing has been done with the unsecured crossings is because there are plans to shut down the Union Pacific line entirely once the “Bridging the Valley” effort is complete, said SRTC transportation manager Glenn Miles. Each crossing signal costs about a quarter of a million dollars to install and it is impractical to spend that much money on crossings that will eventually be closed, he said.

Construction will start soon on a Havana Street overpass near the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center and Barker Road will likely be next, he said. The SRTC is trying to get overpasses or underpasses in place at key interchanges. “It’s all dependent on funding availability,” he said. “As we build those overpasses, we close those (crossings) in between.”

How long that might take is up for debate. “I would say we’re well into the end of this decade.”

The plan is to shut down the Union Pacific line and shift the traffic to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line, which runs along Trent Avenue, said Miles. “BNSF would become a triple track,” he said. “The (crossings) on the UP line will stay there until such time that UP moves over into the BNSF corridor.”

Until then it is driver beware at the unsecured crossings in Otis Orchards. “Traffic on the railroad will continue to increase as you see more Canadian material coming,” Miles aid.

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