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

BNSF to double track on line linking Spokane Valley to Hauser, Idaho

A train rolls through an intersection in Spokane Valley on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. There's so much train traffic that BNSF wants to double up it's rail line in the Spokane Valley. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In response to increasing train traffic expected to nearly double by 2035 BNSF Railway is planning to install a second track from Hauser, Idaho, to the Spokane Valley.

The project – currently in the design phase – calls for a 4.4-mile second track to be installed parallel to an existing BNSF mainline track, which carries freight from Seattle to the Midwest, to allow for more efficient operations.

The project includes modifications of at-grade and overpass crossings, realignment of existing tracks, modifications to existing railroad structures and communication infrastructure, as well as construction of a new railroad bridge over the Spokane River, according to documents submitted by BNSF to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The goal of the project is to ensure double track capacity across the Idaho Panhandle to the Spokane River and to connect to existing BNSF double tracks west of Pines Road in the Valley.

Constructing a double rail track is similar to adding a lane on a highway for more fluid flow, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. Doing so will allow for more efficient operations by reducing hold times for trains on the tracks, he said.

The infrastructure investments are part of BNSF’s $3.3 billion network-wide capital expenditure program, which includes $2.4 billion to replace and maintain its rail network, $500 million for expansion and efficiency projects, $300 million for new freight cars and equipment, and $100 million for implementing positive train control – technology that prevents trains from speeding. The railroad plans to spend $160 million in Washington to improve its infrastructure.

The maintenance upgrades include 490 miles of track surfacing work and replacement of 40 miles of rail – along with more than 230,000 rail ties – in Washington state.

“It’s a significant investment that BNSF is making to have a win-win impact on the community as well,” Melonas said.

However, the yearlong construction could impact traffic flow through several major intersections at Barker, Flora, Evergreen, Pines and Sullivan roads – a cause of concern for some city officials.

During construction, the railroad will try not to block vehicle access for more than 10 minutes at a time, Melonas said.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said the city and BNSF will discuss how to best mitigate potential traffic impacts due to the project.

“If they run a double track through there, then there’s an additional problem at Sullivan Road,” he said.

Vehicle traffic from Bigelow Gulch and Forker roads feed into Sullivan Road, which could create delays, he said.

“We would have to get together with the railroad and work something out,” Higgins said. “Our hope is that they do one crossing at a time. Otherwise, if they do the entirety in one shot, there’s going to be a real problem for us here.”

Spokane Valley Fire Department Chief Bryan Collins said the department has strategically placed fire stations on both sides of the railroad lines that run through the Valley to respond to emergencies on either side of the tracks.

The department plans to work with BNSF to know where rail crossing closures will be each day and move fire trucks to fill gaps in a coverage area as needed, he said.

“Operationally, we find workarounds,” he said. “The key is to know where and when the impacts will happen, so we can adjust our resources accordingly.”

The city is in the process of securing grant funds to begin construction on the Barker Road grade separation project, which will replace an at-grade rail crossing with an overpass and construct a roundabout at the intersection of Barker Road and Trent Avenue.

Higgins said there’s already delays at Pines and Barker roads, so it would benefit everyone if the city and BNSF did construction at Barker during the same time period.

An estimated 58 trains use the BNSF rail line per day. It’s expected by 2035, that number will increase to 114 trains daily, according to a city report.

BNSF is in the process of surveying the site for geological and cultural impacts. The railroad expects to apply for project permits in April.

“We will discuss with appropriate parties necessary to complete the project,” Melonas said.

Construction is expected to begin in spring 2019.