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Judge says no to Center Parkway extension

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City Herald

Plans by the cities of Richland and Kennewick to extend Center Parkway across two rail tracks north to Tapteal Drive have hit a roadblock.

An administrative law judge with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission decided earlier this week to deny the proposal.

Pete Rogalsky, Richland's Public Works director, said the cities are almost certainly planning to appeal.

Center Parkway's proposed path is over two lines of rail owned by the Port of Benton, but leased by the Tri-City Railroad Co.

There is a 20-day window to appeal, and if appealed, the proposal and decision would be reviewed by the commission.

"The ruling didn't adequately reflect a lot of the testimony that was provided about the need for the project," Rogalsky said.

The 800 feet of new road is the last segment needed so the cities can finish a joint effort to connect roads in that area, Rogalsky said.

Extending Center Parkway will help ease the delays drivers experience on nearby Columbia Center Boulevard intersections by giving travelers more choices, he said. City officials have said the extension of the road also will help improve emergency response times.

The Tri-City Railroad Co. opposed the proposal because it believes the city has not shown enough of a need, considering the inherent risks involved at a crossing where trains and vehicles meet, said Paul Petit, the company's general counsel.

While safety concerns can be mitigated, they can't be eliminated, he said. Tri-City Railroad is proud of being virtually accident-free and wants to keep it that way.

While the risks of an accident at the proposed crossing are low, Judge Adam Torem wrote in his decision that police and fire departments are generally meeting response time goals and he did not see any evidence that traffic flow would improve in the immediate area.

The tracks are in daily use by Tri-City Railroad to transport freight, Petit said. They are also used by Union Pacific Railroad Co., which runs trains with 100 or more cars over the track, and BNSF Railway Co.

Anticipated growth in rail traffic would only make the problem worse, Petit said. Traffic is expected to increase from a new proposed rail loop at Horn Rapids Industrial Park and a planned ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston cold storage warehouse in that area.

"All of that traffic has got to come across that track," he said.

Petit said the administrative law judge did a careful and objective analysis. He expects an appeal would be unlikely to change the decision.

The extension of Center Parkway has had a "tortured history" since the first engineering planning study was published about 13 years ago, Rogalsky said.

It's been a complex project for a short road because it involves two sets of rail tracks used by three railroad companies -- two national and one local, he said.

The commission previously denied a crossing for the project about seven years ago.

But since then, the cities have resolved issues with Union Pacific and BNSF, making the project simpler, Rogalsky said.

BNSF agreed in 2011 that it no longer needed that area of tracks to drop off and pick up rail cars, Rogalsky said.

Union Pacific agreed to allow the cities to remove the two tracks it owned where the crossing would go that same year, Rogalsky said. The tracks have not been removed yet

Richland and Kennewick paid Union Pacific $2.1 million to buy property for the road to be built on and to reimburse the company for building a replacement elsewhere, Rogalsky said.

Union Pacific used to drop cars off on that portion of rail, but agreed to no longer do that there, Petit said. Tri-City Railroad picks up rail cars from the railroad and delivers them to local customers, and then returns the rail cars, acting as the customer service arm of the rail network.

Richland has about $2.6 million available to buy property, finish building the road and install warning devices, gates, lights and bells where the road would cross the tracks, Rogalsky said. The vast majority of that money is from state and local grants.

The portion needed to connect Center Parkway to Tapteal Drive in Richland was already built by a developer and just needs a finishing layer of asphalt, Rogalsky said.

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