Efforts to fund rail crossing improvements, including the East Aberdeen rail separation project, dominated a late afternoon discussion between federal and local officials, as well as business owners, at the Port of Grays Harbor on Wednesday.
The discussion was headed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has long championed an efficient freight network to move goods in the Pacific Northwest.
“One of the things we’ve been thinking a lot about is just our larger trade infrastructure, the fact that we have capacity and we are, if you will, on the Pacific in the era of the Pacific,” said Cantwell.
“But that means you have to not have clogged arteries, and you have got to be able to take in business. And to do that you have to have an infrastructure that allows us to be competitive, and the number one thing that we’ve seen over the last many years is that our rail capacity isn’t quite up to snuff to allow us to be as competitive as we need to be.”
To address the issue, Cantwell and others authored language to create the federal Railroad Crossing Elimination Act, a $2.5 billion competitive grant program for railroad crossing separation projects. This provision was included in the bipartisan Surface Transportation Investment Act, which recently cleared the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Cantwell chairs the committee.
Cantwell has first-hand experience with at-grade crossings — crossings like those in East Aberdeen where vehicle and rail traffic are on the same level and in conflict with one another. She resides in Edmonds, where state ferry vehicle traffic heading to the Edmonds landing is often in conflict with railroad traffic.
“We literally have trains blocking our ability to get people off of the ferries,” she said.
Cantwell said there have been situations where first responders “had to literally crawl through the rail cars to get to the other side for a woman who was stuck on the ferry for three hours, about to give birth.”
Similar safety issues are at play in East Aberdeen, where Port-bound trains frequently stop, blocking all access in and out of the busy retail center in the Gateway Plaza, including Walmart and Tractor Supply.
Aberdeen City Engineer Kris Koski gave Cantwell a rundown of the East Aberdeen rail separation project, which would incorporate a roundabout and overpass to separate rail and vehicle traffic on that section of Highway 12.
“With 28,000 cars a day, it’s a very busy highway,” said Koski. “It’s handling all the traffic coming into and out of Aberdeen, which is funneled by steep hills and the river.”
The trains can be up to 7,500 feet long, usually carrying soymeal or other commodities heading for the deepwater Port of Grays Harbor. Stopped trains can completely block access in and out of the “very active commercial area,” as Koski called it, which is responsible for $161 million in sales annually, an important economic driver for the city.
Initial design plans to address the issue called for a roundabout, but “traffic analysis showed us that the roundabout alone didn’t function as well as we would have liked it to, especially during a train event when all of the crossings are closed,” said Koski. “So this flyover ramp (overpass) effectively removes all that traffic and puts it directly on the overpass.”
Cantwell asked about the rail dependency of the Port.
“We’re the largest soymeal exporter, actually in the nation,” said Port Deputy Executive Director Leonard Barnes. “So it’s the lifeblood for the Port.”
Trains from about seven different states deliver the soymeal to the AGP terminal at the deepwater port. Barnes said the soymeal shipping alone “probably generates close to $12 million in wages for our longshoremen and people working in the facility.”
The soymeal rail activity “provides our foundation to be able to do everything else, keep things going,” he said.
Barnes spoke about the safety factor.
“It is a major deal for safety,” he told Cantwell.
He referred to the stretch of highway through East Aberdeen as “the gauntlet,” where up to 250 rail cars travel each day. “There’s one way in and one way out. It just chokes everything.”
Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate told the senator about the difficulty getting emergency vehicles into the Gateway Plaza complex when trains are blocking the entrances.
“It is obviously very concerning, particularly if there were to be some type of larger structure fire,” he said.
There is one access point at the west end, near Heron Street bridge, but it has such low clearance anything larger than a police cruiser can’t use it, meaning fire trucks and even ambulances have no access at all.
Speaking about impacts on the businesses in the area, McDonald’s franchise owner Julianne Hanner talked about the times during shift changes at the restaurant when a “train blocks all three entrances for an hour. So then you have people who can’t get out to their families or whatever they need to do, and you have a shift that could not get in for a whole hour. And it just completely jams up not only Highway 12, but also that entire parking lot, and it’s especially egregious on holiday weekends.”
Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay talked about the project being important for economic growth in the region.
“Getting those intersections corrected now would really help you see future growth,” he said, encouraging further investment by industries in the Port, and the cities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam.
The project’s potential impact on tourism was discussed.
“Everyone wants to get out. I’ve never seen so many campers and fifth-wheels,” said Mike O’Dell with Five Star Dealerships. ”
Greater Grays Harbor CEO Lynette Buffington said, “I guess the tourism experience, it gets a little soured in this inbound traffic, and it also stops people from stopping here before they head to the coast somewhere. So it inhibits commercial engagement.”
Port Executive Director Gary Nelson thanked Cantwell for her interest in and support of the rail separation project and other infrastructure efforts across the state.
“Well, it has earned me the title of Senator Freight,” she said.
She and others in Washington, D.C., are working to double the amount of money in the overall infrastructure package being worked on currently, and the east Aberdeen project could apply for that program’s funds.
“The safety, the tourism of the region, everything’s impacted by” the traffic and rail conflicts in east Aberdeen, said Cantwell.
The overall cost of the project would be around $14 million. Local leaders were thrilled earlier this year when the project had a line item in the draft state capital budget to cover the entire cost; it did not, however, make the final cut, nor was it funded at all in the 2021 transportation budget.