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

Plans for second rail bridge across Lake Pend Oreille put on hold

BNSF Railway Corp. has backed off from plans to build a second span over the water at Sandpoint, saying freight volume doesn’t justify the project at this time.

The railroad last year said it wanted to add a second bridge across Lake Pend Oreille to relieve pressure on the original rail crossing, which is 110 years old, and absorb anticipated growth in rail traffic.

Now the project is on hold, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said this week.

“We don’t have plans in the near future to go forward with building a second bridge,” Melonas said. “It’s just on hold until future volumes dictate an additional need.”

U.S. railroad traffic is down 0.8 percent so far this year, according to the Association of American Railroads.

When the bridge was announced last year some Sandpoint leaders expressed concerns that a second train bridge would increase rail traffic through the city and raise the risk of accidents that could endanger lives or pollute the community’s drinking water.

Overall volume for BNSF is up 1 percent for the year, but the railroad reports year-to-date declines in some commodities, including metals and other minerals, forest products and petroleum.

“It does happen where engineering projections and plans can change due to economic conditions, and those economic conditions are train volumes,” Melonas said. “Currently and in the near future, our physical plant (at Sandpoint) is capable of meeting our customers’ expectations.”

Traffic along BNSF’s busy Hi-Line, connecting the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest, and Montana Rail Link trains converge in Sandpoint and cross the single-track bridge east of the U.S. Highway 95 Long Bridge. A train glides across the span about every 30 minutes on average, making it one of the busiest bottlenecks on Northwest rail lines.

BNSF said the second span would reduce the need for engineers to slow down or stop as they wait for clearance to cross, which also would reduce how often trains block nearby streets that cross the tracks.

The plan called for the second span to go in about 50 feet west of the existing trestle by 2018.

The bridge would extend about 4,800 feet across the water and sit on piers sunk up to 150 feet into the lake bed.

The new steel and concrete structure would resemble the existing bridge, built in 1905 and upgraded in 1955 and in 2008-09.

“Eventually we will add another bridge,” Melonas said. “It’s all driven by the dollar. At this point we’re investing in other areas – choke points that are immediate.”