Marysville hires consultant to study potential rail crossings

MARYSVILLE — Officials are exploring again the possibility of bridging the railroad tracks that bisect the city, but where to cross them and how to pay for it are questions not easily answered.

On Monday, the City Council voted to hire an outside firm to study rail crossings — to identify locations that would benefit from either a bridge over or tunnel under the BNSF Railway main line.

The city has studied this in the past but previously focused mostly on potential overpasses at First and Fourth streets downtown and at NE 72nd Street to the north.

Marysville’s $88,768 contract with Seattle-based BergerABAM directs the consulting firm to identify preferred locations for either an overpass or underpass to replace an at-grade rail crossing. The company’s report is due by the end of the year.

“We thought it would be beneficial for an outside engineering firm to take a look at our entire corridor,” said Gloria Hirashima, the city’s chief administrative officer.

Freight trains downtown are a chronic problem. Along the BNSF main line, which runs from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., there are 33 public at-grade crossings in Snohomish County, 16 of which are in Marysville. Another eight private roads also cross the tracks within the city.

With the main line bisecting the entire length of the city, backups sometimes spill onto the I-5 off-ramps.

A 2011 report said a single long train could block all railroad crossings between First Street and NE 88th Street simultaneously, a distance of less than two miles.

Those cross-streets carry a combined 7,000 vehicles per hour during afternoon rush hour.

Solutions to the city’s rail problem are few.

Another long-term project of the city would result in new on- and off-ramps to I-5 south of the city, at Highway 529.

“That is probably the single biggest project we could do to alleviate this issue,” said Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring.

That project could cost up to $50 million. Freeway traffic would bypass the railroad and relieve east-west traffic downtown. But the new ramps are dependent on state and federal money and will take years to complete.

The Highway 529 plan also highlights some of the problems the city will face if it decides to move ahead with a new grade-separation project for the rail line.

Any rail-crossing project would also be heavily dependent on outside money. “No grade separation project could be funded by a city of our size by ourselves,” Nehring said.

In the case of an underpass, Nehring said, a relatively high water table would add significantly to a project already costing tens of millions of dollars.

If it’s an overpass, State Avenue, the main north-south avenue in the city, is so close to the railroad that an overpass would have to cross both the street and the tracks, and traffic to downtown would have to be rerouted.

Another wild card: Businesses that line Fourth Avenue and other side streets would be affected by construction.

Hirashima said the city doesn’t have a good estimate of train volume through the city, but it has been clearly been rising for several years.

With trains moving through the city at a top speed of 30 mph, each crossing is blocked for 6 to 8 minutes for a 1.5 mile-long train — the equivalent of three or four red-light cycles at an intersection.

“We’re anticipating that this could continue to be the future of rail traffic, to continue to escalate,” she said.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of shipments of flammable crude oil through the county, to refineries in Anacortes and Bellingham, is attracting public attention.

A local citizens group recently counted 132 trains at three locations in the county, including 16 oil trains and 20 coal trains, during a week in April.

The 2011 report, by Gibson Traffic Consultants Inc. of Everett, was done in response to plans for a new export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham with a capacity of 54 million tons of coal per year.

At full build-out, the Gateway Pacific Terminal would add an additional 18 rail trips through Snohomish County, the report said. The project developer, Pacific International Terminals, is expected to submit a draft environmental impact statement in 2015.

Whether that terminal project comes to fruition, Nehring said, the expectation is that rail traffic will continue to grow and the city must explore all possibilities.

“We really don’t have a lot of great answers, so we really want to make sure we turn over every stone,” Nehring said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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