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

Barker project keeps rail crossing reduction plan on track

A dozen years after officials released a plan aimed at improving safety by removing 75 rail crossings from Spokane to Athol, Idaho, most of the concepts are stalled.

Only two bridge projects in the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s Bridging the Valley plan have been completed since its inception: the Havana Street bridge, which opened in 2012 at a cost of $7.9 million, and the Rathdrum state Highway 41-53 bridge.

But at least one major project on the list is moving closer to fruition. Spokane Valley officials are nearing the final design phase and funding for a new bridge at Barker Road and the BNSF tracks.

Barker blockage

The Barker Road overpass is a significant project in the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s Horizon 2040 plan, which aims to meet transportation needs in the region.

The proposed $19 million Barker Road and BNSF railway overpass – to be located about 200 feet south of Trent Avenue and Barker Road – would eliminate the existing at-grade rail crossing and close a crossing at Flora Road and the BNSF railroad tracks.

BNSF’s tracks carry freight from the Midwest to ports in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, and Amtrak uses the line twice daily for passengers. An estimated 56 trains a day pass through the Barker Road at-grade intersection, and it’s predicted that number will more than double by 2035, according to a city report.

Spokane Valley City Engineer Bill Helbig said trains go through the intersection every three to four minutes daily.

“That’s over 10 percent of the day it’s blocked,” Helbig said.

The Barker Road grade separation project will improve traffic flow – especially for rescue vehicles – and addresses safety issues such as cars backing up from the crossing signal on to Trent Avenue, said Staci Lehman, spokeswoman for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

“If there’s a train, there isn’t a way to go around it and that can be an issue,” she said.

Ambitious plan

The Bridging the Valley plan called for the consolidation of BNSF and Union Pacific tracks – which cross in Athol and subsequently run parallel along the 42-mile stretch to Spokane – on to the BNSF right of way. It also called for construction of 11 grade-separated rail crossings.

However, Bridging the Valley failed to gain traction due to lack of funding and disagreements between BNSF and Union Pacific railroads, said Glenn Miles, executive director of the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Although city officials over the last decade had renewed interest in the project, cities were left to pursue funds separately for individual rail projects contained within Bridging the Valley.

In Idaho, the Pleasantview Road grade separation project and the Ramsey Road overpass are both in the design phase, said Miles, who spearheaded planning for Bridging the Valley.

Cheaper options

Spokane Valley – which will oversee the Barker Road project with BNSF and the Washington State Department of Transportation – is about $3 million short of the funding goal.

The city late last year applied for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery and the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants. The city was recommended to receive $6 million from the National Highway Freight Program.

The city also funds transportation projects through real estate excise tax revenue with transportation operations funding from state gasoline taxes and the telephone utility tax. The city’s street funds can cover operations and maintenance of the project, but they can use excess funds for unexpected project costs as they arise.

Spokane Valley originally proposed an interchange at Barker Road, but the $36 million construction cost then made it difficult to secure grant funds. Additionally, the design lacked support from WSDOT and Spokane County. The interchange design was voted down by the City Council in early 2017.

Throughout 2017, the city partnered with WSDOT to come up with alternative designs.

City officials discussed six options for the grade separation project at a Jan. 30 council meeting and agreed to move forward with an option that includes a roundabout northeast of the intersection with a BNSF overpass near Barker Road and Trent Avenue.

Mayor Rod Higgins said the project is critical because it will handle increased population growth in the eastern part of the Valley and improve the poor level of service along Barker Road.

“We’ve got to get this done in order to accommodate our industrial growth and passage of traffic through the area,” Higgins said.

A prime area for development

The city touts the project as a way to attract new businesses to the nearby 500 acres of undeveloped industrial zoned land near the Barker Road and Trent Avenue intersection.

Katerra recently broke ground on a 250,000-square-foot cross-laminated timber facility, and Progress Rail last year purchased 39 acres of adjacent land to build a manufacturing facility in the industrial area.

Councilman Ben Wick said the current at-grade rail crossing at Barker Road restricts businesses and development in the industrial area.

“We see it as a really prime economic area. We’ve had to turn businesses away because they couldn’t get permits,” he said. “So, that’s kind of the main push to open it up for economic development and other side is the safety.”

Developers seek to expand the 300-acre Highland Estates neighborhood north of the rail crossing by developing 100 more acres in the Vista Grande subdivision.

Owner of Kestell Co. Realtors, Jack Kestell, was involved with development of the Highland Estates neighborhood with more than 200 homes that lie north of the intersection. Highland Estates was envisioned to be a larger scale project, and with road improvements it has the potential to exceed 500 homes.

“Everybody I’ve spoken with, they are highly supportive of this for safety reasons,” he said. “I know the city would like to see this happen. They would be able to develop industrial property and also provide big improvements to the Highland Estates neighborhood.”

Construction on the Barker Road grade separation project is expected to begin in 2020 and is slated for completion by the end of 2022.