There have been no significant upgrades to any of the railroad crossings in the Spokane Valley since the Argonne Road underpass opened in 1996.
Despite optimism a decade ago that a “Bridging the Valley” plan might capture enough federal and state money to finance bridges or underpasses of the Union Pacific and BNSF Railway tracks, residents and businesses between Argonne and Sullivan roads still get wall-eyed while cargoes of corn, automobiles and, most recently, oil, crisscross east and west.
The conflict between rail and road will worsen as the Valley continues to grow, and the railroads thread more trains across the downtown Spokane viaduct. Even if just one-half the 44 additional trains carrying oil and coal to the West Coast materialize, total traffic could increase by more than one-third, to more than three trains per hour.
And calls for BNSF to slow down oil trains to minimize the odds of an accident – a proposal the railroad has been fighting – will further increase the congestion.
Customers, meanwhile, complain about bad service. The railroad could not move last year’s crops efficiently, and observers predict some of a record corn harvest for this year will be piled on the ground.
On-time service for the Empire Builder passenger train has sunk to the worst among all Amtrak trains.
Federal law requires the railroads to do remarkably little to help solve the crossings problem. At Barker Road, where Spokane Valley officials hope to build a four-lane overpass, BNSF has offered $346,000 toward its $19 million cost.
By comparison, BNSF says it will spend $5 billion nationwide this year to upgrade track and signals, and buy locomotives. The company earned more than $3 billion last year.
The capital investment is laudable. The United States needs an efficient rail system to move the huge quantities of goods and commodities demanded in the global marketplace. But efficiency has meant abandoning spur lines and the small communities that once depended on them.
States like Washington have stepped in to assure some of those lines keep operating rather than seeing heavy trucks break down rural pavement.
So the direct beneficiaries of BNSF’s investment have become ever more distant – the oil and coal companies, the automobile makers – while the frustrations and hazards posed by the trains and their cargoes remain local.
Bridging the Valley will probably not go forward as envisioned for decades, if ever. The convenience of easy north-south movement must be weighed against the size of investment needed to make it so at every crossing.
But if ever Congress gets around to passing a serious transportation bill, our representatives should push for a bigger railroad contribution to crossing construction. There is little likelihood the work will get done with the money available today, and the railroads’ argument that they were here first should not give them a perpetual pass on helping their communities.