November 5, 2011 in Washington Voices

Train crossing options examined

Expense of creating quiet zones, wayside horns presented
By The Spokesman-Review
Map of this story's location
Private amendments

The City Council was notified this week of seven private comprehensive plan amendment requests, which had to be filed by 5 p.m. Tuesday. There are also several city initiated amendments to update maps and text as well as review the Garden Office zone and the Corridor Mixed Use zone along Trent Avenue

The private amendments are:

• 12510/12512 E. Olive Ave., low density residential to high density residential

• 16913 E. Mission Ave., low density residential to mixed use corridor

• 15922/16002 E. Broadway Ave., office to commercial

• 805 N. Park Road, low density residential to neighborhood commercial

• 601 N. Conklin Road, medium density residential to high density residential

• 1114 N. Vercler Road, low density residential to office

• 15712 E. Broadway Ave., office to commercial

Spokane Valley interim Deputy City Manager Roger Crum presented the Spokane Valley City Council with a comprehensive look at the possibility of using quiet zones or wayside horns to eliminate train whistles at every railroad crossing in the city.

A group of residents signed a petition last year requesting quiet zones where Park Road and Vista Road cross the Union Pacific line north of Trent Avenue. Crum said he visited every crossing in the city and met up with a few trains in his travels. “These whistles are very loud,” he said. “The sound does carry quite a bit.”

Creating a quiet zone is a long, expensive process that isn’t generally encouraged by railroads, Crum said. It can cost up to $50,000 just in fees before construction costing hundreds of thousands of dollars can begin, he said. The typical ways to create a quiet zone are by putting in a four-quadrant gate system or a two-quadrant gate system with a 60-foot-long median that can’t be driven over.

Installing wayside horns instead requires that the crossing have a two-quadrant gate and the city must pay to install signal upgrades and an annual maintenance fee. “They’re not as cheap as we originally thought they would be,” Crum said.

The Union Pacific Park Road crossing does not have any gates. It would cost about $200,000 to install a two-quadrant gate system, but there isn’t room to put in the required 60-foot median because of a nearby intersection, Crum said. A four-quadrant gate is even more expensive. “There’s no cheap way to do it,” he said.

The Vista Road crossing has an existing two-quadrant gate, but there isn’t room for the required quiet zone median there either, said Crum. The crossing could be a candidate for a wayside horn, he said.

The crossings that would easily qualify for quiet zone improvements are on the BNSF Railway line just south of Trent Avenue, Crum said. The one at Park Road already has gates and a median and would likely need little extra work. The BNSF track has about 50 train movements a day while the Union Pacific line has between eight and 10, Crum said.

Councilman Gary Schimmels said loud train horns on the Union Pacific line at Vista and Park are only part of the problem. “The other problem is trains parked on the tracks,” he said.

The council made no decisions on whether to move forward with the creation of any quiet zones. The city does not have any money budgeted for the potential project.

In other business, city staff laid out a road map for economic development, pointing out what staff is working on and what is yet to come. Community Development Director John Hohman said he has already started meeting with regional economic development agencies so the city is collaborating instead of doing its own thing. “We need to be out visiting with those partners,” he said.

Hohman has also started what he calls a 12-step program to improve, speed up and standardize the city’s permit process. “We feel we are on the right track,” said City Manager Mike Jackson.

Old directional signs on the Sprague/Appleway couplet have been replaced with new signs listing current businesses. Hohman said he also has been working with the Greater Spokane Incorporated Small Business Council to discuss improvements in change-of-occupancy procedures.

The next steps are to continue meeting with regional business groups, revising the city’s code where needed and installing new permit tracking software, Hohman said. There is also a new economic development page on the city’s website.

The council also discussed the wastewater rates proposed by Spokane County and was split on which option to endorse. Under all three options Spokane Valley residents will pay $1.10 more per month than other ratepayers. The first option under consideration would include a rate decrease. The second option would keep rates the same. The third scenario would keep rates flat for two years followed by three years of rate increases. Under the third option the county would move ahead with piping wastewater to Saltese Flats.

Councilman Arne Woodard said he liked the first option. “Why would we not want to do that?” he said. “In order to do that, they would have to spend down their reserves,” said Jackson.

Woodard said he thought the city wouldn’t have a say if the county chose to move ahead with the Saltese Flats projects. “Everybody’s rate is going to go up,” he said. “If they have to do that, we don’t really have a choice, right?”

Councilman Bill Gothmann noted that the first option would reduce the reserve fund from nearly $50 million to $10 million when the county calls for a minimum balance of $4 million. “I would certainly be in favor of scenario number one,” he said.

Woodard said he was worried about spending reserves that might create large rate hikes in the future. “I’d hate to have to spend them now just because it’s expedient,” he said. “Those increases are pretty modest.”

“It’s imperative that we hold the cost down as much as possible, but I do have concerns about spending the reserves,” said Mayor Tom Towey.

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel said projections show the reserves could rise as high as $60 million in 2013 before dropping. “The reserves are quite high,” she said.

Gothmann said even if the first option is picked, it won’t be locked in. “If things change in a year, you can come back and change it,” he said.

Schimmels said it would cost about $45 million for the Saltese Flats project. “That’s a very strong reason for not using the reserves,” he said. “That is a very large expense.”

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