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

Getting There: Spokane Valley gets $22 million to eliminate train delays

Spokane Valley drivers who hate getting blocked by passing freight trains got $22 million worth of good news last week.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Thursday it’s giving Spokane Valley $22 million to build an underpass where the BNSF Railway tracks cross Pines Road. The money also will help pay for a roundabout just north of the railroad at the busy intersection of Pines Road and Trent Avenue, and a pedestrian trailhead by the Spokane River.

Elected officials at the city, state and federal level have spent years trying to fund bridges and underpasses in Spokane Valley. The Pines Road project has long been a top priority at City Hall. It’s one piece of the region’s ambitious Bridging the Valley effort, a largely unfulfilled proposal to eliminate train crossings between Spokane and Athol, Idaho.

More than 60 BNSF trains rumble across Pines Road for a cumulative four hours every day. Those crossings stop traffic, costing drivers time. They’re also dangerous, transportation experts say, and hurt the local economy.

A railroad bridge allowing motorists to travel beneath the tracks will mean vehicles and trains no longer have to share the road. It should improve safety, reduce traffic jams and even open the area to new commercial development.

Spokane Valley now has $33 million secured for the $40 million underpass and roundabout project. The city is buying land needed for construction and could break ground in 2024.

Mayor Pam Haley said she was “unbelievably happy” to hear Spokane Valley had gotten the money. She said Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers fought for the project in D.C., and she thanked them for their efforts.

City Councilman Ben Wick said the underpass will improve safety and reduce delays for ambulances and firetrucks. The area will get quieter, too, because trains won’t need to blast their whistles anymore as they approach the crossing.

Wick said he’s spent countless hours trapped in a vehicle on Pines Road, watching freight car after freight car rattle past.

“I used to get stuck there every day,” he said.

City Councilman Rod Higgins said he was pleasantly surprised to learn the city had won the $22 million. Spokane Valley has been trying to fund the Pines Road project for at least a decade, he said.

“You’re talking about the speed of government,” Higgins said, “and when you’re talking about a rail crossing, you’re talking about the federal government.”

The Bridging the Valley concept started picking up steam in 2000. It was a bold plan with the potential to solve one of the region’s biggest transportation problems and reduce traffic congestion, accidents, noise and trucking delays.

The Union Pacific and BNSF rail lines run parallel for 42 miles from Spokane to Athol. Trains cross roads at ground level more than 70 times during that stretch.

Many of the crossings are in Spokane Valley. When the area was rural farmland, they weren’t a major issue. But the Valley grew into bustling suburbs and a city.

Frustrated residents, politicians and business leaders realized that conflicts between cars and trains would only worsen as the population grew and the railroads expanded their operations. So they devised a proposal: Union Pacific had to abandon its line and share one with BNSF.

“Without consolidating those two very busy Class I trackages, you’re looking at many more grade crossings that need to be separated,” said Ryan Stewart, a senior transportation planner with the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

If the two railway companies agreed to use one system through the Valley, then governments – mostly at the state and federal level – could spend millions of dollars on the infrastructure side. The proposal called for separating train and vehicle traffic at 11 crossings, upgrading existing bridges and underpasses at eight other spots, and closing some conflict points entirely.

Even the early dollar figures were big. Building bridges at the 10 busiest Spokane Valley crossings alone would cost $102 million, according to one early 2000s guess. Back then, engineers thought they could get the Pines Road project done for $10 million.

The estimates climbed over the years. By 2006, Bridging the Valley had an estimated $270 million price tag. That rose to $350 million by 2008.

In the grand scheme, none of the figures ended up mattering much. The companies weren’t willing to share.

“They absolutely refuse, categorically, to talk to one another about it,” Higgins said.

Without buy-in from the two railroads, Bridging the Valley never had a chance, at least in its original form.

The idea itself is still alive and well, though – it’s just been abridged.

“It’s been scaled back to focus on the busiest grade separations,” Stewart explained.

In Spokane County, only the Havana Street bridge has been completed. Another bridge, on Idaho Highway 41-53, was built across the border.

Spokane Valley hopes to have its $26 million Barker Road bridge and roundabout project done this year. When construction wraps, the city will close the Flora Road train crossing.

The Pines Road project is one of the few Bridging the Valley components that was important enough to keep chugging along.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Higgins said. “I’m glad it’s here.”

Work to watch for

Continued work on a stormwater pipe near Downriver Golf Course will close sections of Cleveland Avenue beginning Monday.

The residential road between C Street and T.J. Meenach Drive will close Monday. It’s part of a $3 million project intended to help deal with stormwater runoff that eventually spills into the Spokane River.

Users of the pedestrian Iron Bridge near Gonzaga University will notice sewer work beginning Monday. Crews will be tying sewer lines together in the area as part of a $1.4 million rehabilitation of the sanitary sewer.

Crosswalk work near Bemiss, Arlington, Whitman, Grant, Audobon and Madison elementary schools, as well as Glover Middle School, Gonzaga Prep and Cataldo Catholic, will begin Monday. Sidewalk and crosswalk improvements are being made to slow traffic and assist students walking to classes.

Work on the Thor/Freya reconstruction has closed Fifth Avenue between Rebecca and Freya streets. Westbound traffic will need to take Sixth Avenue, while eastbound will be rerouted to Third Avenue.