Railroad crossings made safer in region

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Railroad crossing improvements such as lighted gates, bells and flashers have been installed at Union Pacific’s crossing on Spokane Street south of Prairie Avenue in Post Falls. The $925,000 in improvements came nearly a year to the day after a 15-year-old girl died in a vehicle-train collision at the intersection. A westbound UP train is shown at the intersection on Tuesday. (BRIAN WALKER/ Hagadone News Network)

By BRIAN WALKER

Hagadone News Network

POST FALLS — Nearly a year to the day after a 15-year-old girl was killed during a car-train collision in Post Falls, close to $1 million in improvements have been installed at an intersection notorious for such accidents.

Union Pacific’s crossing on Spokane Street south of Prairie Avenue now has $925,000 worth of improvements that include lighted gates that drop before a train arrives, bells and both flashers and railroad crossing signs on the sides of the intersection and above it.

Mayor Ron Jacobson said he was on a Sunday walk when he was relieved to see workers at the intersection installing the crossing arms.

"This crossing is a concern, especially in light of the fatal accident," he said. "The city is committed to working with the railroad to improve the crossings in our jurisdiction."

Kootenai County, mostly the Rathdrum Prairie where both UP and BNSF Railway have lines, has led the state in vehicle-train collisions in recent years.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 29 such accidents in Kootenai County from 2007 to 2017. Those accidents have resulted in six fatalities, including Post Falls High student Mikelli Villaseñor last year, and seven injuries.

The Idaho Transportation Department administers funding from the Federal Rail Authority to local jurisdictions to support safety improvements at railroad crossings. Each year the FRA provides ITD with $1.9 million for projects statewide, while ITD provides a 10 percent match on top of that.

On the Spokane Street project, the city this spring will also make nearly $30,000 in improvements such as curbs, a bike trail and widening on the west side of the road.

Another Post Falls intersection on UP’s line that recently received $564,000 in improvements was on Grange Avenue between Chase Road and Spokane Street. The city and the Whiskey Flats subdivision developer will also have curbs, sidewalks and an asphalt road completed this spring to further enhance both motorized and non-motorized safety. The city’s portion is less than $10,000.

UP’s intersection at Watkins Avenue in Athol will receive $275,000 in improvements this year. Construction is pending coordination with UP by ITD.

"The projects all convert passive crossings into active crossings," said Megan Sausser, ITD public information specialist.

Passive crossings use road markings and stop signs to alert drivers. Active crossings use gates, lights, signs and road markings to alert travelers.

Crossings are maintained through cooperation between railroad operators, city and county officials and ITD engineers.

Sausser explained why it seems it take so long for railroad crossing improvements to be made.

"Since improvements for the crossings are constructed with federal funds, ITD must program these projects out seven years," she said. "Once improvements are turned into a programmed project, they typically cannot be accelerated, even if there was a recent fatality at the site."

Sausser said projects go into a program as a priority for ITD after near-miss and crash data and train volumes are analyzed, but they may not be prioritized equally by the railroad.

"Usually when projects are within two years of construction, ITD meets with the railroad to start discussions about design," she said. "Once an agreement is signed, the railroad orders equipment and schedules the work. Railroad personnel, not ITD personnel, construct the actual improvements."

Justin Jacobs, UP spokesman, said safety improvements take time due to all of the jurisdictions involved.

"Multiple partners have to come together to find a solution," he said. "But, at the end of the day, we want everybody to get home safe to their families."

Local officials say they have received many calls of concern from residents about the collisions. However, while the improvements are intended to reduce such accidents, factors like cost and the total number of intersections make it impossible to implement them at all areas of concern.

Of the 1,274 crossings in Idaho, 58 are in Kootenai County.

Railroad and local officials warn drivers to be vigilant at all intersections — regardless of the type of safety features that exist.

"We all need to be more aware of our surroundings as drivers and to drive defensively," Post Falls City Councilman Alan Wolfe said. "All the precautions we can build cannot save us from our own inattentiveness."

BNSF Railway Spokesman Gus Melonas added: "Trains can move on any track at any time in both directions. Be aware of train activity at all times (regardless of what safety features exist)."

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