Proposed safety gate at Boulevard Park rail crossing will be costly

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 17, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - City officials agree that safety improvements are needed where South Bay Trail crosses railroad tracks into Boulevard Park, but the price tag is steep: about $377,000.

At a Monday, Sept. 16, committee hearing, Public Works Director Ted Carlson told City Council members that the $377,000 figure is an estimate provided by BNSF Railway Co., which would install the proposed system of warning bells, flashing lights and crossing arm that an oncoming train would activate. But the city is expected to pay the full cost.

Carlson said the city is negotiating the potential deal with railroad officials and he asked the council to authorize him to move forward with the project.

Carlson and Parks Director James King told council that the city could cover the cost with money from voter-approved Greenways funds, park impact fees and the transportation benefit district.

Council member Seth Fleetwood told Carlson he uses the crossing frequently, and said it was not obvious to him that such expensive safety improvements were needed.

Carlson replied that any rail crossing without such signals is dangerous. He noted that the city recently closed the C Street crossing due to safety concerns, and it won't be reopened until signals can be installed there - also at city expense.

Council member Stan Snapp noted that there had been a fatality at the Boulevard Park crossing: In 2008, a Bellingham woman was struck and killed as she bicycled across the tracks.

While council members eventually agreed on the need, there were doubts about the funding sources. Snapp said he preferred to see voter-approved transportation benefit district dollars used for restoring WTA bus service that was cut back due to the recession.

Council member Michael Lilliquist raised a thornier issue: the possibility of increased rail traffic if Gateway Pacific Terminal is built at Cherry Point to export coal and other cargoes. That project could mean a maximum of 18 additional trains per day. Some analysts believe the railroad would need to build a siding along its existing line at the edge of Boulevard Park to accommodate the added traffic.

Lilliquist noted that the trail crossing might become unusable if it is frequently blocked by trains waiting on the siding, and any city investment in it would then be lost. Carlson said he knew of no railroad plans that would eliminate the crossing.

The council's parks committee referred the matter to the full council for discussion later Monday evening.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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