Thursday, August 8, 2002

Idaho

Plan to sink railroad tracks faces barrier
Steep grade, buried utility lines, Rathdrum Creek present problems

Erica Curless
Staff writer

photo
Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

RATHDRUM, Idaho _ Sinking the railroad tracks beneath the downtown streets is no longer such a good idea.

The steep grade into town, buried utility lines and Rathdrum Creek are all barriers to the idea proposed by the City Council in July.

"The dropping of the track is basically not realistic," Public Works Director Bob Lloyd said. "Never say never but there is a really slim chance this would happen."

The council thought lowering the tracks would save the town from getting cut in half when the railroad closes Mill Street, the last crossing in town that allows drivers to get from Highway 53 to Main Street.

The McCartney Street crossing was closed earlier this year.

The city hoped the idea was feasible now that the "Bridging the Valley" plan has become more of a reality.

The proposed $270 million federal-state project would allow Union Pacific trains to use the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway tracks between Spokane and Athol, Idaho. It wou
ld mean building overpasses, underpasses and closing some crossings along the 41-mile corridor to improve safety.

Lloyd met with the Idaho Transportation Department and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council on July 24 and learned that sinking the tracks might not be such an easy solution.

"It would be very technically challenging to do but it hasn't been ruled out yet by any means," said Carole Richardson, ITD's district transportation planner. "It's important now to just keep an open mind and not get locked into any one idea too quickly."

Richardson added that "Bridging the Valley" is still conceptual and that its construction depends on Congress passing a bill in 2003 to fund the project.

But the design process is chugging along. Washington has already secured the money needed to start preliminary designs and Idaho is trying to find the cash, Richardson said.

"If we find the money to at least start the design it will show folks in Washington, D.C., our interest," she said.

And there is plenty of opportunity for Rathdrum to offer suggestions during the design phase, Richardson said.

Mayor Joe Hassell told residents during Tuesday's City Council meeting that there is no hope of saving the Mill Street crossing.

"We have no choice, no say," Hassell said. "We can stand out there with placards all we want and protest."

He asked the city to stay involved in the planning.

Council members said they want to invite ITD to a town hall meeting later this summer so residents and city officials can ask questions about Rathdrum's options. The date has yet to be set but Richardson said she would welcome the opportunity.

Another reason lowering the tracks through town wouldn't work is because it would wipe out a new $1.5 million underpass just east of the current Greensferry Road crossing.

Lloyd said the Post Falls Highway District will reroute Greensferry Road this fall so it connects to the highway.

The current crossing is almost always blocked by train traffic, Lloyd said.

"Emergency vehicles and school buses won't use it now," he said.

BNSF promised to build the underpass when it put in the new refueling depot two miles west of downtown.

This isn't the first idea to protect downtown Rathdrum that has sputtered.

This winter, residents vehemently opposed the city's proposal to punch Main Street west until it connected with the new Greensferry Road and underpass.

The road extension would have wiped out numerous homes in the Willow Creek Trailer Park, which ignited resident protest and petitions to recall Mayor Tawnda Bromley and then-Councilman Hassell. Bromley stepped down shortly afterward because of health issues.

This spring, the council agreed not to pursue the Main Street extension even though it would have solved Rathdrum's problem with the railroad tracks.

The city still has an $850,000 grant to use toward improving access to downtown.

The council suggested using the cash to install a signal crossing where Mill Street goes over the tracks. But ITD rejected that idea.

And all agree that putting a light or signal at the crossing is only a short-term solution.

"I hope the council stays involved," Lloyd said. "I think it's very important to Rathdrum's future."


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