With trains coming through almost hourly, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's Maple Street crossing in Bingen could be -- to use the old cliche -- "an accident waiting to happen."
In fact, a loaded lumber truck was hit by an eastbound freight train at the Maple Street crossing in September 2001. Fortunately, the train had time to slow before the collision and no one was hurt, but it highlighted the safety concerns.
Later this month, the Washington Department of Transportation is expected to approve a safety grant to reduce the danger of a train-vehicle collision at the crossing.
The grant, estimated at approximately $200,000, will pay for crossing gates that come down when trains approach, ensuring that vehicles don't cross in front of oncoming trains.
"I think it's a great idea," said Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel.
Currently, the crossing is protected by bells and flashing red lights only.
The grant is provided via a federal statute that allocates funds for various transportation safety projects around the United States. A certain percentage of the money is set aside for upgrading railroad crossings.
"Towns can't afford these improvements, and the railroad is able to avoid hitting people, which they enjoy. It's a win for everybody," said Mike Rowswell, rail safety manager for the Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission.
Rowswell explained that the existing crossing system would be taken out, and new signals, gates, and a train-detection system installed.
The grant pays 100 percent of the installation cost, then the railroad takes over.
"Once the system is in, the railroad maintains it -- and that's pretty costly," added Rowswell.
Prigel noted that recent law enforcement campaigns related to the Maple Street crossing showed that some motorists have dangerous tendencies.
"It's a problem at that crossing. There are good sight lines to see the trains, but people have a bad habit of running through the lights," Prigel explained.
Rowswell said gates for Maple Street are necessary.
"We're talking about safety," he said. "We engineer railroad crossings throughout the state for improvements, and our evaluation of that crossing is that it needs a gate, and the train detection circuitry needs upgrading also. But it's up to WDOT to make the final selection, because the grant is given through the WDOT."
Rowswell added that the Bingen crossing had not yet gained final approval, but he believed it would be soon.
"My guess is the decision will come by the end of January," he said.
Prigel said he hoped the Maple Street crossing could be eliminated entirely someday.
"Ultimately, I'd like to see an underpass to the Port of Klickitat," he said. "But at this point there is no action on that."
Prigel said the projected costs to build an underpass range from a low of $3 million to as much as $10 million.
"It's on our priority list, but we have no identified funding," Prigel explained.