SAGLE — Plans to eventually shutter the at-grade railroad crossing on Heath Lake Road and its intersection with U.S. Highway 95 remain on track.
Bonner County officials met with officials from BNSF Railway and the Idaho Transportation Department on Wednesday to begin roughing out a plan to close the troubled transportation intersections, although official closure dates have yet to be determined, according to Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald.
The railroad crossing is governed by a private access agreement between the county and the railroad that dates back to the 1950s. It allows either party to withdraw from the agreement within 90 days of written notice, McDonald said.
McDonald said the county is conducting a document search to determine if there were any further agreements which supersede or amend the terms of the underlying agreement. Absent those agreements, the railroad can pull out of the pact and move to close the crossing, McDonald said.
However, McDonald said the railroad does not intend to fast-track the closure and is working with the county and ITD to develop a closure plan. That plan includes hard-surfacing a mile or so of Heath Lake Road and creating a level turnaround at the western terminus of the road for buses and snowplows.
“We’ve encouraged them to help with that process,” McDonald said of funding for improvements to Heath Lake Road.
Once the crossing is closed, Heath Lake residents would have to use Algoma Spur Road to access northbound U.S. 95 or East Dufort Road to access southbound U.S. 95.
“For those that live right next to the railroad, it’s going to extend their (commute to) access to Highway 95,” said Don Hutson, director of Bonner County Road & Bridge.
The closure of the at-grade crossing will effectively close Heath Lake Road’s intersection with U.S. 95 because the at-grade crossing is the only thing between the railroad tracks and the highway.
Pressure to close the Heath Lake crossing has been mounting since 2013, when a Bonner County motorist was killed in a collision with a passing train. The death was ruled an accident, although a family member later publicly disclosed that it believed she intentionally drove into the passing train in an act of suicide.
The crossing has crossbuck signs advising motorists of the crossing and stop signs, although it lacks crossing arms.
There have been a couple of other train-versus-vehicle collisions at the crossing since the 1970s, although they didn’t result in fatalities, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records.
Heath Lake’s connection with U.S. 95 is also a source of unease for traffic designers. The intersection lacks deceleration and acceleration lanes, which makes entering or exiting the highway at best challenging and at worst dangerous.
There were five roadway collisions at the intersection between 2010 and 2015, according to a report generated by ITD’s traffic design section.
McDonald is hoping there will be an opportunity to improve Heath Lake Road’s connection with Algoma Spur as part of the closure plan.
“It’s not a great intersection,” he said.