Crossing plan frustrates city, business owners

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PONDERAY — Business owners and city officials aren’t happy about the proposal by Union Pacific Railroad to shut down the Eastgate Crossing.

Frustration pervaded a recent Ponderay City Council meeting this month, where members debated the most effective way to engage UP officials and public utility commissioners in the controversy over the commonly used railroad crossing.

Unsatisfied with the proposal from UP to close off the crossing for $25,000 in compensation, council members instead forwarded the matter on to the legal department to further explore their options.

“I don’t want to sign this,” said Ponderay Mayor Carol Kunzeman. “I think it’s a terrible deal.”

In a letter sent to the city last month, UP announced its intention to close the crossing, which provides a highly utilized access point between the commercial and residential sides of Ponderay, citing the crossing as a hazard to public safety.

For businesses like Sandpoint Furniture, Carpet One, Co-op Gas and Supply and the tenants of Bonner Mall, however, it’s an important connector to many local consumers. Business representatives were quick to file formal opinions with the city, which were read into the record at the council meeting. At a minimum, business owners wanted to see Diamond Crossing, which was closed in 2000, reopened.

“The city should oppose any closing of Eastgate Crossing that does not include mandatory reopening and funding of construction for the immediate use of Diamond Crossing,” said representatives of the Co-op. “There will be no opportunity to do so in the future.”

“I want to convey how important this crossing is to our business,” said a similar letter from Sandpoint Furniture and Carpet One. “This crossing is important to the logical flow of traffic in and out of the triangle.”

Council members, meanwhile, were exasperated with what they perceived as bullying and a lack of consideration for Ponderay’s needs. Councilman John Darling said the issue was less about public safety than UP’s ability to stack trains through town.

“Their trains are longer than they’ve ever been, and they need that distance between Kootenai Cutoff and point X, Y or Z to be able to stack them,” he said.

In addition to the limited access and harm to traffic flow, council members said train stacking was a potentially destructive influence. They worried it would block visibility of businesses from the highway while lingering in town while carrying possibly harmful or flammable cargo. Beyond that, it further divided Ponderay’s commercial and residential areas, they said.

While council members Darling and Rick Larkin felt the city needed to take a firm stance in establishing its position, councilwoman Karen Engel advised fellow members not to alienate UP officials. She said that since the company hold the lion’s share of power in the decision to close the crossing, the city needs to find a way to bring them to the table.

“We have to find a way to work with them,” she added.

The next step for Ponderay is to explore the possibility of petitioning Idaho Public Utilities Commission to address potential safety issues related to train stacking. Since the commission oversees railroad crossings for safety and maintenance, it will play a role in authorizing any potential changes to Eastgate Crossing.

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