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

Getting There: Second rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille nearly finished

A train crosses over Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint on Oct. 31. The second railroad bridge is essentially finished and will begin service in November.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

A second railroad bridge over Idaho’s largest lake is set to begin service this month and promises to ease pressure at a bottleneck on the BNSF Railway by allowing trains to run in both directions.

The new 4,880-foot bridge runs parallel to the original bridge built in 1904, which crosses Lake Pend Oreille southeast from Sandpoint.

The Montana Rail Link merges with the BNSF mainline in Sandpoint, adding to the bottleneck waiting to cross the bridge.

About 60 trains pass through Sandpoint every day, said Lena Kent, public affairs director for BNSF. In addition to freight, the bridge serves the Amtrak passenger Empire Builder route from Portland and Seattle to Chicago.

“The upgrades will reduce congestion and help move our current freight traffic more efficiently,” Kent said.

The two tracks will reduce the need for trains to idle while waiting to cross. Drivers could see shorter wait times on roads that cross tracks nearby, and the flow of freight and passenger trains will be improved throughout the region, Kent said.

The $100 million Sandpoint Junction Connector Project began in late 2019. It includes two smaller bridges in Sandpoint over Sand Creek and Bridge Street.

The project is ahead of schedule. Once the new bridge is finished, maintenance work will begin on the old bridge until July 2023, Kent said.

Some residents and environmental groups expressed concerns during the project’s planning and permitting stages, including Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad.

The Idaho Conservation League wrote opinion pieces asking for an environmental impact statement to more closely analyze the project, arguing that the U.S. Coast Guard’s environmental assessment was insufficient. Nearly 2,700 people submitted comments to the Coast Guard during a public comment period in 2019.

“Our primary concern at the time was that the bridge would be used to increase coal shipment,” said Brad Smith, North Idaho director for the conservation league.

Fortunately, he said, they have since seen a decrease in coal trains due to lower demand. He also acknowledged that freight shipped by rail is more energy-efficient than shipping by truck.

“BNSF trains can move one ton of freight nearly 500 miles on just one gallon of diesel fuel,” Kent said, “and moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers greenhouse gas emissions up to 75%.”

But the potential for derailments is an ongoing source of concern, given several recent examples nearby.

On New Year’s Day 2020, a rock slide derailed several locomotives into the Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry, leaking diesel fuel. Another BNSF train carrying corn derailed near Cocolalla Lake south of Sandpoint in 2017. A few months later, 30 coal cars of a Montana Rail Link train derailed near the Idaho border in northwest Montana, spilling several thousand tons of coal near or into the Clark Fork River.

A spill into the lake would be disastrous, said Helen Yost, organizer of the activist group Wild Idaho Rising Tide, which has closely tracked the project and monitors train traffic in the region.

“We’re concerned about oil trains possibly wrecking, exploding or spilling oil into the lake,” she said. “There’s all kinds of other hazardous materials hauled over that lake as well.”

To ensure safe and reliable infrastructure, BNSF follows a rigorous bridge management program with annual inspections as required by the Federal Railroad Administration, Kent said.

The company has more than 180 hazardous materials responders and advisers, with emergency-response equipment strategically placed across the rail network. “In the event of an emergency involving our railroad, these first responders are essential for an expeditious and decisive response,” she said.

BNSF also provides free training to local emergency responders and has conducted hazmat containment drills on Lake Pend Oreille and other North Idaho waterways.

Work to watch for

Illinois Avenue has reopened between Market Street and Perry Place following a $1.8 million pavement improvement project. There will be single lane closures this week as crews complete the work.

The installation of a water and sewer main will close Phoebe Road from Front Road to 37th Avenue on the West Plains beginning Monday through Nov. 28.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.