East Aberdeen rail project would benefit region

Railroad crossings don’t get a lot of attention from people unless, of course, they are stuck waiting in a vehicle for a seemingly endless train to make its way along the track.

This scenario plays out regularly in Aberdeen where Port of Grays Harbor-bound trains frequently stop, and then block access in and out of the bustling retail center Olympic Gateway Plaza, which includes Walmart and Tractor Supply.

The backups from the trains, which can measure up to 7,500 feet in length, also present a number of other issues besides challenging the temperament of motorists.

The commercial area, at which point the trains impede traffic, generates about $161 million in sales each year for the city. Then there are the obvious safety issues, such as emergency responders being able to gain entrance to the area.

The problem is compounded by traffic counts on that stretch of Highway 12.

“With 28,000 cars a day, it’s a very busy highway,” said Aberdeen City Engineer Kris Koski during a June 30 meeting with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and others at the Port of Grays Harbor to discuss rail separation projects. “It’s handling all the traffic coming into and out of Aberdeen, which is funneled by steep hills and the river.”

But Cantwell, who has long championed an efficient freight network to transport goods in the Pacific Northwest, is well aware of the problem and aims to do something about the situation.

Cantwell and others have authored language to create the federal Railroad Crossing Elimination Act, a $2.5 billion competitive grant program for railroad crossing separation projects that The Daily World supports.

The language was included in the bipartisan Surface Transportation Investment Act, which recently passed through the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Cantwell chairs the Senate committee.

“One of the things we’ve been thinking 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 during the June 30 meeting at the Port.

“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 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.”

That is why the $2.5 billion proposed federal grant program would be so beneficial, particularly in Aberdeen where local officials and business owners have thrown their support behind the East Aberdeen rail separation project.

The roughly $52 million project would incorporate a roundabout and overpass to separate rail and vehicle traffic on the section of Highway 12 impacted by the stopped trains.

Initially, the overpass was not part of the plan but a traffic analysis showed it “didn’t function as well as we would have liked it to, especially during a train event when all the crossings are closed,” said Koski during the meeting.

“So this flyover ramp (overpass) effectively removes all that traffic and puts it directly on the overpass.”

Among some of the local officials and business owners who voiced support for the project at the meeting were local McDonald’s owner Julianne Hanner and Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay.

Hanner said at the meeting the impact on her business can be measured in a number of ways, including 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.”

She added, “And it just completely jams up not only Highway 12, but also that entire parking lot, and it’s especially egregious on holiday weekends.”

Shay pointed toward the potential economic benefits of the East Aberdeen rail project.

“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.

While there are no guarantees the East Aberdeen rail separation project will get funded, it is our hope that lawmakers are able to find a way to keep it on track.