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Blocked rail crossings, horns raising residents’ ire

Children  walk home past a stopped hopper- type train car that sits on the tracks  Nov. 8,  in the Millwood area near Orchard Center Elementary. (Jesse Tinsley)
Children walk home past a stopped hopper- type train car that sits on the tracks Nov. 8, in the Millwood area near Orchard Center Elementary. (Jesse Tinsley)

Orchard Avenue neighbors take concerns to city council

Last month a group of Orchard Avenue neighborhood citizens descended on a Spokane Valley City Council meeting, petition in hand, to ask for the city’s help with railroad crossings at Park and Vista roads north of Trent.

Residents complained that Union Pacific trains were blocking the crossings for hours on end and blowing horns continuously in the early morning hours and waking them up. The horns have gotten worse in recent years, resident Mike Dixon said during the meeting. At 3 a.m. “we have trains that will hold the horn down all the way from Millwood to the police academy,” he said. “That’s several miles.”

“It’s almost ridiculous to live there,” said resident Mark Bohn. “I’ve probably gone three days without sleep. For two years it has been out of control. It’s just miserable.”

Chris Wetherell, who collected nearly 200 signatures on a petition to have the two crossings declared quiet zones, said he now sleeps with earplugs. “I don’t mind the trains coming through,” he said. “It’s just the horns are ridiculous.”

Union Pacific is also illegally using the tracks as a “train depot” since they are blocking the crossings, particularly Park Road, for extended periods of time, Wetherell said. Washington state law prohibits trains from blocking crossings for more than 10 consecutive minutes “if reasonably possible.”

Several residents said they have seen emergency vehicles and Spokane Transit Authority buses turn back because the crossings are blocked for a long time. Utah Avenue is just south of the tracks and the crossing on Park Road is not at an intersection, leaving cars stopped at the tracks without a way out if there is other traffic behind them. Wetherell said he has seen STA buses that couldn’t back up drive down what is little more than a dirt trail next to the tracks until they could get around the train and continue their route.

Fire marshal Kevin Miller of the Spokane Valley Fire Department said there is no way to track how often engines have been turned back by trains. Standard policy in those cases is for firefighters to call dispatch to have another engine respond from a different station, he said.

Either way there could be a significant delay in the response time, Wetherell said. “It can mean the difference between saving a life and not saving a life.”

There are no crossing gates at the Park Road crossing, but there are on Vista Road. The Park Road crossing is behind Orchard Center Elementary and Wetherell said he sees children crossing the tracks all the time. Kids also walk down Utah, which is narrow and without sidewalks, when drivers frustrated by long waits at the crossing take a detour through the neighborhood. “They start hauling butt down Utah,” he said. “Utah is narrow to begin with.”

Union Pacific spokesperson Aaron Hunt said trains stop briefly in the area to change crews and also stop to wait for clearance to cross Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. The Union Pacific line intersects with the BNSF tracks to the west and to the east. “We have to radio to their dispatch and await the all clear until we can move,” Hunt said. “The wait times vary.”

Anyone who wants to report a blocked crossing can call UP at (888) 877-7267. “We will do what we can to clear the crossing as quickly as possible,” Hunt said.

Federal law requires train engineers to sound their horns at least 15 seconds but no more than 20 seconds when approaching a crossing. The horns should have the pattern of two long, one short and one long blast. Engineers must also sound the horn “if there are any potential dangers on or near our right of way such as trespassers, motorists, etc.,” Hunt said.

The city is currently investigating the possibility of establishing the quiet zone residents are requesting. It is a long and expensive process. Changes would have to be made to both intersections and could include concrete medians or a four-quadrant gate system to completely prevent cars from crossing the tracks when the crossing arms are down. According to a report prepared for the city, the cost could range between $350,000 and $475,000 for the Park Road crossing and between $40,000 and $350,000 for the Vista Road crossing. The city would likely be responsible for the entire costs unless grants could be acquired.

“You can’t go around the arms,” Wetherell said. “You’re improving the safety of the intersections. I don’t know why there aren’t quiet zones on all intersections.”

“Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers and the general public,” Hunt said. “Establishing quiet zones not only creates a public safety risk but also is a potential cost burden to taxpayers.”

Wetherell said he would be willing to pay for it. “I would pay another 20 or 50 bucks a year on my property taxes to install the darn things,” he said. “That’s worth the money to me.

“There’s a better way that’s legal and safer,” he said. “I think I’ve done all I can do. It’s in (the city’s) hands now.”


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