Freight Rail’s Upside Is Big, But At-Grade Crossing Delays Need More Focus, Funds

Freight Rail's Upside Is Big, But At-Grade Crossing Delays Need More Focus, Funds
Freight rail - like this train carrying Washington wheat west to a port - gives a big boost to the state's economy. But at-grade crossings can lead to costly delays of road traffic. Overpasses and underpasses cost tens of millions to build and funds so far are scarce. A statewide database will be used to catalog candidate projects, and to help begin the process of prioritizing them. Photo: Wikimedia.

Freight traffic by rail in Washington state nearly doubled from 1991 to 2010 and is projected to more than double again by 2035. Estimated annual economic benefits to Washington’s economy from freight rail are $28 billion. Yet growth in Washington freight rail volume hasn’t come without a price paid on the road. At-grade, or street level, train track crossings of arterial roads can cause what a new state study update calls “long and unpredictable delays” for truckers hauling freight, and for other drivers and emergency responders.

$1 Billion In Project Needs

There are at least $1 billion worth of rail crossing improvements needed in urban regions statewide, according to a 2014 report by the Washington Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board. That includes pricey overpasses and underpasses to separate road and train traffic, and less costly projects to fix signal devices, crossing pavement, and improve engineering and signage for alternate routes. Safety is a priority, as well as vehicular traffic flow. The state is now developing a database to catalog at-grade projects, and will also begin to set parameters for prioritizing them.

In Washougal, along the Columbia River Gorge in Clark County, frequent and long freight trains can just about shut things down, according to local officials. Washougal has five at-grade crossings and a mile-long train can block all of them, said Mayor Sean Guard. “We must try and minimize those conflicts,” Guard told the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) at a meeting last week in Everett.

Funding A Stretch Too Far, For Cities

Mount Vernon, in Skagit County, has an at-grade crossing that intersects with State Route 538 downtown. Officials want either an overpass or underpass to circumvent the rail line. However, the $20-30 million project needed is beyond their city budget, and would require state and federal grants.

Burlington, also in Skagit County, is eyeing a proposed $15 million overpass to replace an at-grade crossing. City officials there also say they can’t pay for it on their own.

It’s a problem other Washington cities share. The freight mobility board’s 2014 report noted that the costs for at-grade crossing improvements “exceed many city and county budgets.”

“When you talk of grants, it has to be evaluated and prioritized on a broader perspective,” Burlington Public Works Director Esco Bell said. “If we’re going to ask… for grants, how are they going to understand how to dole out money?”

State Investment Modest

As part of its current $37 billion biennial budget for 2015-17, the state allocated $500,000 to the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) for at-grade crossing safety projects, plus another $4 million for grade crossing improvements and studies.

The $16.1 billion, 16-year state transportation spending package approved last year by the legislature and fueled by a 12 cent-per gallon gas tax increase, allocated $13 million to a grade separation project in Kent, and committed $85 million to another to ease delays for Port of Longview-bound truck traffic on State Route 432.

More is needed, as the $1 billion 2014 estimate from the state’s freight mobility board indicates.

Lawmakers say better prioritization of needed work is one piece of the puzzle. That would boost the chances for Washington if the $300 million annual at-grade crossing project fund advocated by U.S. Rep Rick Larsen of Washington (D-2) were to win approval from Congress.

Statewide Database Could Help

A state study update provided last week to members of the JTC says at-grade rail crossings continue to pose costly delays to trucks and cars, and that a new statewide database is being developed to catalog where fixes are needed. A “prioritization process framework” will be set by the time the study is done, but not a priority list from among the projects. That comes later.

According to the study update by consulting firm Berk and Associates, 76 percent of Washington’s 2,860 rail crossings are at-grade, and can contribute to accidents and “long and unpredictable traffic delays.”

Road-rail conflicts in the state are longstanding, but in the past only came up anecdotally, as a part of other discussions, said State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41). She’s the chair of the House Transportation Committee and a member of the JTC.

The problem has worsened as trains have gotten longer, and now it needs to be addressed on a state level, Clibborn said.

Clibborn added that the database and subsequent analysis will help decide which projects offer the “biggest bang for buck.”

Dave Catterson agrees. He’s a government relations analyst with the Association of Washington Cities. Catterson said, “It’s not yet clear how we’re going to try and address these problems. Money from the feds is one possibility and if we’re approaching that with a state-wide perspective, we’re probably in better shape. We’ll have a head start if there’s federal funding directed at these kinds of issues,” he said.

No Traction Yet For ACE Act

Last year, Rep. Larsen introduced H.R.2933, the At-Grade Crossing Enhancement (ACE) Act. The bill would have provided $300 million in annual grant money nationwide for projects to improve and replace at-grade crossings. States, cities and tribes would have been eligible for the grants.

However, the bill failed to get a hearing after it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

In a 2015 report, Larsen emphasized the impact at-grade crossings can have on both the economy and transportation system.

“As rail traffic slows through urban areas, trains cause agriculture and manufacturing shipment delays, increasing export costs as goods cannot get to ports on time,” he wrote.

Truckers, And BNSF Pitch In

The trucking and freight rail industries in Washington state emphasized steps they’re already taking to address the problem.

Washington state truckers have been able to utilize routes which avoid at-grade crossings that can cause long delays – but not always, said Sheri Call. She’s Executive Vice President of the Washington Trucking Association, and an advisory panel member for the road-rail conflict study. Like cities, the association is also concerned about trains restricting emergency responders, Call said.

Faster Trains, Shorter Delays

The BNSF railroad has tried to offset at-grade crossing delays of vehicles by improving train speed. In the last three years, BNSF has invested $500 million in track upgrades and enhancements, according to Director of Public Affairs Gus Melonas. The faster the trains go, the less time they spend blocking traffic at the crossings, he said. BNSF also added double tracks where possible, to handle growing rail traffic.

“We appreciate the need for mobility,” Melonas said.

Between 1991 and 2010, rail freight moving through the state grew from 64 million tons to 116 million tons, according to an economic study by the Puget Sound Regional Council. That’s an 81 percent increase. The PSRC study anticipates freight volume increasing to 238 million tons of by 2035.

The advisory committee guiding the road-rail conflicts study of the JTC will meet:

  • August 2nd, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., at the Sea-Tac Airport conference center;
  • September 28th, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Sea-Tac Airport, meeting room to be determined;
  • and November 2nd, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Olympia, John A. Cherberg Building on the Capitol Campus.

The Study of Road-Rail Conflicts in Cities is funded with $250,000 of gas tax revenues. The study is due on December 1, 2016. The 2017 legislative session opens in early January.


Writing and reporting by TJ Martinell and Matt Rosenberg.


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