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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Proposed Valley rail bridges seek to increase safety, decrease traffic

Spokane Valley resident Dennis Bonnett stands near his front yard as a freight train rolls through the Park Road crossing Aug. 4. Bonnett has lived near the crossing for 30 years and says he has watched BNSF build two more tracks through the crossing in that time. (Tyler Tjomsland)

It didn’t take an engineering degree to realize the railroad crossing at Park Road posed a threat and inconvenience to the Spokane Valley community.

Almost 6,700 vehicles a day crossed the tracks – the main BNSF Railway corridor linking Chicago to Seattle. Trains came through – 50 each day – at speeds reaching 79 miles per hour.

Furthermore, the Park Road crossing was the most hazardous in Spokane County, and fifth-most dangerous in the state, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

“While accidents are rare, they have the very high potential for fatalities,” Spokane Valley City Engineer Steve Worley wrote in a 2010 application to a special state fund that distributes grants for railroad crossing projects.

Worley wanted money to build a median barrier and curbs to prevent cars from going around the crossing gates. He got it, and the safety improvements were made that same year.

Though the Park Road crossing is now safer, the $40,000 project did nothing to address growing congestion at that crossing and many others. Money shortages and a failure to secure cooperation from the railroads sunk plans to build what officials say would be the only real remedy for the crossings: bridges.

With rail traffic on the rise, however, local officials are once more pushing for improvements to some of the region’s more hazardous crossings, identified by the Spokane Regional Transportation Council nearly a decade ago.

After a five-year study, the SRTC recommended in 2006 separating rail traffic from vehicle traffic at 19 crossings along the 42-mile rail corridor from Athol to Spokane. The plan, called “Bridging the Valley,” proposed the projects to reduce highway-rail collisions, shorten commutes and open up economic development opportunities along the corridor.

Spokane Valley is pushing ahead on what would be the city’s first endeavor: a $30 million bridge at Barker Road over three BNSF tracks and East Trent Avenue. Spokane completed a $7.9 million, four-lane bridge on Havana Street spanning the Union Pacific rail lines in 2012.

“Nobody has touched Bridging the Valley in 10 years,” said Spokane Valley City Councilman Ben Wick, who’s also a member of a newly formed ad hoc committee of city leaders across Washington concerned about rail issues. “But it’s coming back.”

Traffic up, funding down

As the economy expands and contracts, so does rail traffic. Along the BNSF and UP corridors nationwide, traffic dropped about 18 percent from 2006 to 2009, according to weekly traffic reports.

But BNSF reported last year that it had almost made up that difference, and UP is about halfway back to 2006 levels, thanks in large part to the booming Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.

Crude oil shipments by BNSF have more than tripled since 2006, and the company has called the commodity a “game changer” in its overall growth following the recession. Because of this, local officials have said specifically that the expected rise of crude oil transport is an impetus for bridge projects.

Fifty trains cross Barker Road every day. The Washington Department of Transportation estimates that proposed coal and oil terminals could add at least 44 more trains per day, and vehicle traffic on Barker – now about 6,000 cars each day – is expected to increase 38 percent by 2040. Delays at the crossing are expected to double in the next 15 years.

The bridging project would build a four-lane roadway over the BNSF tracks and a diamond interchange onto Trent Avenue.

At the time Bridging the Valley was proposed, the idea of building lots of bridges in one sweep garnered some funding interest and appeared to be feasible, said Ryan Stewart, senior transportation planner for the SRTC.

“There were some strong supporters at the state and federal levels,” Stewart said, and there were “valid expectations that this region was pretty successful in getting earmarks for a variety of projects.”

Now, the SRTC estimates that just three of the original projects, including Barker, could be built in the next three decades. None have the necessary funding to begin construction.

States receive federal funding specifically for grade separation projects, but Washington’s allotment – $18 million for 2013-15 – is barely enough to fund one every two years, “if you’re lucky,” said Ahmer Nizam, of the state Department of Transportation.

As officials have failed to find money for bridging projects, they have instead settled for much smaller state grants from the Grade Crossing Protective Fund, which doles out $500,000 every two years – up to $20,000 per project – to provide for improved warning signs and curbing. It was this fund that Spokane Valley tapped for the Park Road improvements.

But such projects are mere Band-Aids where a bridge is sorely needed.

Dennis Bonnett would know: The retired carpenter has lived next to the Park Road crossing for 30 years and watched BNSF add two more tracks in that time, he said. On a recent Monday afternoon, Bonnett watched the gates slowly close and a BNSF train roar past.

“The local people that live here, we know that if we want to get across, we turn on Argonne, or we turn on Fancher,” Bonnett said. “But people who don’t know, deliveries and stuff like that, they’re backed way up both sides.”

Seeing emergency vehicles often trapped at the gates, he said, “I would hate to have my mother or my dad or my loved one on the other side of the tracks.”

‘Dealing with another country’

With most bridge projects costing anywhere from $20 million to $30 million, officials say the full Bridging the Valley project is realistic only if the two biggest rail competitors in the country can work together.

Consolidating the UP and BNSF rail lines into one rail corridor proved to be the central challenge between local governments and the two rail companies, said Stewart, of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council. The tracks operate within 10 miles of each other; combining them would mean constructing one bridge instead of two.

Consolidation made up the largest part of the original price tag for Bridging the Valley.

The railroad companies weren’t interested then and still aren’t, however.

“Why would they participate in helping another competitor build a new rail yard?” Stewart said. “What is the business case for BNSF to allow UP to operate in their rail right of way?”

For now, the projects eyed all span the BNSF line, and the question of funding still remains, Stewart said.

“Railroads typically participate at a very low level” in local projects such as grade crossings, Stewart said. Rail companies are required by federal law to cover 5 percent of bridging projects for the part of the project that crosses directly over their tracks.  

For example, BNSF has pledged $346,000 for the Valley’s planned Barker Road project, which equals about 1 percent of total project costs but meets the requirement of 5 percent of costs for the physical structure.

“Dealing with the railroads is like dealing with another country,” said Wick, the Spokane Valley city councilman. “They report to the federal level, and we don’t have any impact on them. They were here first, as they like to say.”

The city applied in April for a $15 million federal grant from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, fund. Even with the grant money, the city still needs to raise about $4 million of matching funds, said Mike Jackson, Spokane Valley’s city manager.

If the Barker Road bridge project can get started, city officials say, it would build political momentum for Bridging the Valley – momentum that has largely shifted to the North Spokane Corridor. Since 2009, two TIGER grants have been awarded in Spokane County, both of which went to the corridor project.

“We can’t get them all done at once, so let’s go after one or two at a time,” Wick said. “The Barker grade separation would be a good one to show there’s some progress, then that’ll get more people involved.”