EVERETT — For all of the publicity oil- and coal-train traffic has been getting recently, the fiery crash outside Mosier, Oregon, earlier this month came as a reminder that no region with railroads is immune from disaster.
On Tuesday, members of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee met in Everett and were given a good look at many issues cities are dealing with that might not be as camera-ready as an oil-train explosion, but could be just as disruptive.
Ryan Sass, Everett’s city engineer, opened a presentation to the committee with a photograph of a familiar site to residents of the Bayside neighborhood: the Bond Street underpass with an oil train parked on the far side.
“This is an example of the type of pain point we have,” Sass told the committee.
BNSF Railway closed the underpass in 2014 because people were climbing between parked train cars to get to the Pigeon Creek trail on the far side.
Since then, the city has explored building a pedestrian overpass at three different locations.
“All of them have difficult or near-fatal flaws,” Sass said, not least of which is because the landing point of any overpass would be on active port property.
The only other option right now is making improvements to the mile-long walkaround to the Terminal Avenue overpass, he said.
“This could be a fitness course,” Sass said.
Sass and representatives from other cities were joined by the committee’s own consultants, who have been preparing a report for the Legislature on conflicts between roads and rails.
The committee’s report will include a list of all 2,864 rail crossings in the state, ranked by the relative size of the conflicts.
Fully 76 percent of those crossings, or 2,198, are at-grade crossings, according to the data gathered by the consultants. While some of those are in rural areas that don’t get much traffic, many more are in the hearts of cities.
Sean Guard, the mayor of Washougal in Clark County, said the presence of ever-longer freight trains is having an effect on the city.
“In Washougal, they can completely shut down the city,” Guard said.
The Mosier derailment upriver was a reminder that future accidents are almost a certainty.
“Even in the study put together by Vancouver Energy for projects down in our area, those are estimated to happen every two years,” Guard said.
Mount Vernon is another city dominated by seven at-grade crossings, two on state highways and one close to I-5, Mayor Jill Boudreau said.
“When we have one of these closings it backs up onto I-5,” she said. That is a problem also shared with Marysville.
A grade separation project in Mount Vernon could cost as much as $30 million, while the city’s entire annual budget is only $27 million, she said.
Next door in Burlington are 16 at-grade crossings on two rail lines that cross in the center of town, with a train assembly yard located immediately to the south.
The tracks effectively divide the city into quadrants, said Marv Pulst, the city’s public works director.
“There are a number of times per day when a train comes through blocking all crossings,” Pulst said.
More worrisome: police and fire stations are located southwest of the railroad junction.
A long train turning from the main line toward the oil refineries in Anacortes, he said, “essentially blocks our emergency responders off from three-quarters of our city.”
Burlington’s solution is to build an overpass over the main line on Gilkey Road, he said, at a cost of $15 million.
Everett got lucky early on, Sass said, because a 1900 agreement that allowed the tunnel under the city to be built also required the railroads to build several “wagon bridges” over the tracks in the city.
As those bridges have been replaced over the years, most recently the Broadway Bridge, the ownership of the bridges has reverted to the city, Sass explained.
That isn’t to say that the city doesn’t have other sources of railroad grief. The unstable bluffs south of downtown frequently slide onto the tracks and have been responsible for at least a 2012 freight derailment and a 2013 Amtrak derailment.
The tunnel also is a challenge for emergency crews responding to a fire or spill, Sass said.
A train carrying liquefied petroleum gas derailed in July 2014, but didn’t leak. But an earlier propane tank car derailment in September 1979 prompted the evacuation of 48 square blocks of downtown Everett.
Jon Pascal of TranspoGroup, a Kirkland consulting firm hired to do the survey of road-rail conflicts, said the final list had to be “commodity-neutral,” partly because the state had incomplete information as to the amount and kind of hazardous materials being transported.
Oil trains get a lot of publicity, but other trains carry liquefied petroleum gas, ammonia, chlorine and other chemicals that can be just as dangerous.
The report is also not intended to provide a list of projects to fix all the road-rail conflicts, but rather just identify where the biggest problems are.
“Obviously the results of this effort could be used for future funding requests down the road,” Pascal said.
The report is expected to be complete and presented to the Legislature in November.