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Feds nix plan to extend Center Parkway across railroad tracks

The cities of Kennewick and Richland may not extend Center Parkway across a pair of railroad tracks near Columbia Center mall, under a recent ruling by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

The cities jointly want to construct an at-grade road crossing to connect Center Parkway with Tapteal Drive and Gage Boulevard by way of a pair of railroad tracks operated by the Tri-City Railroad Co.

The cities say the project will improve traffic flow in a growing area. In lieu of constructing a bridge or tunnel, the cities propose installing modern traffic controls at the crossing. They say there isn’t enough road or rail traffic to warrant more costly investments.

But the railroad has fought the plan, saying an at-grade crossing will interfere with its use of both the main line and a side track.

In an opinion released Sept. 14, the transportation board agreed, saying the Center Parkway extension “would unreasonably interfere with (the railroad’s) present and future railroad operations on one of the tracks.” The plan to condemn property using state law violates federal transportation law, it said.

The city of Richland, the lead for the project, is not giving up.

“We have options,” Mayor Bob Thompson said.

They include appealing the decision to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, negotiating a compromise with Tri-City Railroad owner Randy Peterson or revisiting the idea of building a bridge or tunnel.

Tri-City Railroad leases the 16-mile section of track linking the Port of Benton to the main railroad line from the port. It says mixing cars and trains would impede its growing business and pose a safety hazard.

In court documents, the railroad said its business is growing. The railroad handled the equivalent of two nine-car trains per day in 2013, two 10-car trains per day in 2014 and two 16-car trains per day in 2015.

Preferred Freezer Plant, which began operations in 2015, is behind the increasing number of rail cars on the line. The railroad expects more growth, noting that Lamb Weston’s corporate parent, ConAgra Foods Inc., is expected to build an automated cold storage warehouse in the Horn Rapids area.

In a parallel legal action, the Washington Court of Appeals for Division III approved the Center Parkway extension plan in June, but agreed to revisit its decision a month later at the railroad’s request.

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