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Decision on allowing Kennewick, Richland to extend Center Parkway appealed

Center Parkway's troubled history isn't resolved yet.

A recent decision that would have allowed the cities of Richland and Kennewick to build the last 800 feet of new road needed to connect Center Parkway and Tapteal Drive has been appealed.

The Tri-City Railroad Co. is asking the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to reconsider its recent decision to allow Center Parkway to extend over the two Port of Benton-owned rail lines the company leases.

The railroad company wants the commission to require the cities to present evidence to show the broader public need for the crossing that the commission concluded in its recent decision, according to court documents.

Extending Center Parkway would mean that drivers would be able to travel from the traffic circle at Gage Boulevard near P.F. Chang's and Olive Garden north to businesses near Kohl's department store.

Tri-City Railroad said it never got a chance to respond to the economic benefits and transportation network arguments the commission used in its recent decision. It is asking for a hearing before the commission, according to court documents.

Most of the arguments focused on the perceived benefits to public safety, which the commission and an administrative law judge decided were too slight on their own to require the crossing, according to court documents.

The railroad has argued that the cities failed to show enough of a public need to outweigh the inherent risk posed by at-grade crossings.

Tri-City Railroad claims in court documents that the commission didn't properly consider expected increases in rail traffic when it determined the risks of an at-grade crossing are relatively low.

The commission's recent decision "in essence concludes that the interest of public safety is subordinate to the 'broader public need' which consists solely of allowing private developers to profit by enhanced access and deference to local government which has made every effort to mislead the commission regarding the extent of future rail traffic and thus the likelihood of disastrous collisions at this crossing," the railroad said in court documents.

The railroad's requests for reconsideration and a delay of any action by the cities to extend the road over the rail lines was made to the same three-member commission that just decided to approve the extension.

Jeff Peters, Richland's transportation and development manager, said, "We have to wait through the process to see what the commission's action is."

The commission has 20 days to respond to the railroad's request, Peters said. Not responding is an automatic denial, and the commission's recent decision would be in effect.

Peters said the appeal by the railroad was expected.

The cities themselves appealed earlier this year after an administrative law judge with the commission denied the proposal. The cities argued that the Center Parkway extension would improve failing emergency response times, relieve traffic congestion, reduce traffic accidents, promote economic development and complete a long-planned regional transportation network.

Extending Center Parkway to Tapteal Drive has been planned for about 15 years, but has hit a number of hurdles and road blocks.

The commission previously denied a crossing for the project about seven years ago. But since then, the cities resolved issues with Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. and made the project simpler.

BNSF agreed it no longer needed that area of tracks to drop off and pick up rail cars and Union Pacific agreed the cities could remove the two tracks it owned where the crossing would go in 2011.

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. The tracks have not been removed yet.

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