Lack of funding obstacle to improving train crossings

EDMONDS — Earlier this week, a Sounder commuter train smashed into a truck in front of the Edmonds ferry dock, tearing off the front of the semi.

While no one was injured, the collision Tuesday morning snarled early-morning traffic for hours. The crash illustrates what local officials have long said is a need for improved rail crossings — both in Edmonds and elsewhere — not only for safety but to keep traffic moving.

The roadblock is the same as it is with many other issues.

“The big obstacle still is money and always will be,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said. Train crossings are an issue in that city as well.

Edmonds is the only city in the state with a ferry terminal where drivers have to cross railroad tracks to reach the boats. Trains run through Mukilteo as well but a bridge on Highway 525 carries drivers over the tracks.

Ferry loading and unloading is often delayed by trains. Between 36 and 42 trains move through Edmonds every day, Mayor Dave Earling said. There are freight trains, Amtrak passenger trains and Sounder commuter trains.

A proposed shipping terminal in Bellingham for coal and grain could double the amount of trains. Environmental studies for that project began last month.

The total number could reach 104 by 2030, according to the environmental study for the Edmonds Crossing project, a now-dormant plan to build a new ferry terminal at the south end of the city. That study was done before the shipping terminal was proposed.

Also at issue is the ability of fire, police and aid crews to reach incidents on the west side of the tracks when trains are going by, Earling said.

“If train traffic is going to more than double over time, there are going to be more incidents,” he said.

Edmonds Crossing was designed to address the problem by building a bridge for cars and trucks across the tracks. The project would have combined a ferry terminal, bus bays and a train station at the south end of the city on the former Unocal tank farm property.

Now, a chain reaction of events has put the plan on life support.

The price tag for putting all these amenities in one place was not cheap — $237 million. Still, plans were sketched and environmental studies were completed. Arrangements were made for Unocal to sell the property to the state once the environmental cleanup was finished.

These developments helped attract $80 million in state and federal funds.

The cleanup, however, was complicated, proceeded slowly and still isn’t done. The poor economy isn’t helping.

Because Edmonds Crossing was not shovel ready, the federal government withdrew more than $6 million it had budgeted for the project, said Stephen Clifton, economic development director for Edmonds.

The big blow, though, came at the state level — nearly $62 million set aside for Edmonds Crossing was reallocated to building new ferry boats because of funding shortages.

Earlier, in 2007, another potential large source for Edmonds Crossing failed to materialize. Voters rejected a tax measure — known as the regional transportation improvement district, or RTID — that would have raised another $167 million.

It’s uncertain whether Edmonds Crossing can be revived in some scaled-down form, city officials said.

Now, they’re discussing an $80 million plan for an underpass at the railroad tracks by the ferry dock. The City Council, however, recently voted against including the idea in the city’s long-term plans.

Earling said this move hinders the project’s chances to get outside funding. City Councilwoman Lora Petso, who voted with the majority not to include the plan, said in an email that the underpass conflicts with two other plans on the city’s books, Edmonds Crossing and improvements to Brackett’s Landing Park, next to the current ferry dock.

Bruce Agnew, director for the Cascadia Center, a Seattle rail advocacy group, said he plans to lobby the 2013 Legislature for train crossing improvement money. He specifically mentioned the underpass project and possible improvements in Marysville as Snohomish County projects the group would support.

In 2009 and 2010, the state received nearly $800 million in federal funds for rail improvements. This money, however, was not targeted for crossing improvements but rather for track upgrades to speed the way for passenger and freight trains, said Melanie Coon, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

In Marysville, people driving across town often have to sit and wait for trains at Fourth Street, 88th Street NE and 116th Street NE. Building overpasses at these locations would not only be expensive but is essentially prevented by the fact the tracks are squeezed between State Avenue and I-5, according to Nehring. A lot of businesses would have to be bought out to make it happen, he said.

The city’s approach, the mayor said, will be to push the state to build an off-ramp from northbound I-5 to Highway 529 south of the Fourth Street exit, which would keep many drivers off the other streets.

There’s currently no funding for such a ramp, state officials have said.

Still, “that is the easiest and least expensive way for Marysville to solve the problem,” Nehring said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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