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Battle to extend Center Parkway over 2 rail lines headed to Benton County Superior Court

Tri-City Railroad Co.'s battle to prevent Richland and Kennewick from extending Center Parkway over two rail lines is headed to Benton County Superior Court.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission recently stood behind its earlier decision to allow the cities to extend the road over the rail lines to connect it with Tapteal Drive.

But Tri-City Railroad -- dissatisfied with the commission's denial of the company's request to require the cities to present evidence to show the broad public for the crossing -- filed a lawsuit against the commission on July 23.

The railroad company, which leases the two Port of Benton-owned rail lines the road would have to cross, is asking a judge to overturn the commission's approval of the crossing.

The company filed a joint lawsuit against the cities seeking damages on July 25, as well as separate claims with Kennewick and Richland alleging damages of at least $2.5 million that same day.

It's unclear if the company is seeking at least $2.5 million total or at least $2.5 million from each city. Paul Petit, the company's general counsel, declined to clarify the company's claims.

Kennewick and Richland will defend themselves against Tri-City Railroad's claims, city officials said.

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. The extension has been in the works for about 15 years, but it has hit a number of hurdles and roadblocks.

Approval from the Utilities and Transportation Commission was required for Kennewick and Richland to pursue the extension plans. The commission decided here was a broad enough public need for the crossing, including to economic development and the regional transportation networks.

The commission found that the previous decision by an administrative law judge that denied the crossing focused too much on the single issue of public safety, according to the decision. The cities had appealed the denial to the full three-member commission.

Tri-City Railroad contends that the commission misused public comments about economic benefits as evidence and should have limited its decision to the public safety aspects. It said it did not get to respond to the economic arguments.

But the commission says the company has had recourse to challenge the commission's decision, and has done so, according to commission documents.

Tri-City Railroad now claims that it faces property damages if the cities extend the roadway over the two rail lines, one of which it uses as a passing line. The company says extending the road would eliminate the 1,900-foot passing track, which the company also uses to store idle freight cars.

The cities have not paid the railroad any compensation or started an eminent domain process, the railroad wrote in court documents.

The cities plan to remove two of the four tracks at the proposed crossing, but those tracks were owned by Union Pacific.

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.

Both Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co., which also use the tracks that will remain, told the commission that they were okay with the proposed crossing, according to commission documents.

Richland and Kennewick worked to resolve issues with Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. and simplified the project after the commission previously denied a crossing for the project about seven years ago.

Richland Public Works Director Pete Rogalsky said Tri-City Railroad did not respond to the cities' request to meet to discuss the Center Parkway extension before they applied to the commission.

The cities initially had proposed moving the passing line west so the proposed crossing would only have to cross one set of tracks, he said. However, the railroad's representatives testified during the commission proceedings that it did not want the track moved, so the plan was changed to crossing the two tracks.

Rogalsky said the cities always intended to fairly compensate Tri-City Railroad for the interest it has in the tracks through its lease with the Port of Benton. However, it did not make sense to compensate Tri-City Railroad until after the cities received approval from the commission to proceed. They wouldn't need the rights to the property if the crossing was denied.

The cities will begin acquiring the needed property and right of way to build the crossing, he said. When the project will be built is uncertain because of the lawsuits.

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