By JESSE BURKHARDT
Could access to Bingen Point be a deal-breaker in efforts to keep Insitu based in the community?
At the Jan. 4 meeting of the Bingen City Council and again at the Jan. 5 meeting of the White Salmon City Council, Port of Klickitat Commissioner Jim Herman explained that improving ingress and egress to Bingen Point is a key consideration in Insitu's plans to potentially locate a business campus in the area.
"We're trying to get Insitu a spot at Bingen Point. They've narrowed it down to two sites -- at the airport in Dallesport, and at Bingen Point. Insitu is looking at a 50-year lease on between 10 to 20 acres, with a 300,000-400,000 square foot campus," Herman explained. "One big stumbling block is the railroad."
Currently, there is only one public road coming and going to Bingen Point: Maple Street, which is also the main entrance to SDS Lumber Co. The biggest complication with Maple Street is that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks cross Maple Street at-grade.
The tracks through Bingen are part of a vital east-west route, with approximately 30 trains rolling east or west every day. BNSF's mainline through the Gorge provides a water-level route through the Cascades, with most of the materials that pass through the ports of Portland, Vancouver, Kalama, and Longview passing over the line.
"Insitu thinks it's a real bottleneck, and I tend to agree with them," Herman explained. "We need more than one way of going in and out of there."
"I'm always concerned if there is a train wreck and we couldn't get it moved, how do we get emergency vehicles down there?" added Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending.
Bingen City Council member Catherine Kiewit asked whether Insitu considered the current configuration of having only one primary road to Bingen Point a deal-breaker.
"Is moving to Bingen Point conditional on this access? This would take a lot of time to make happen," Kiewit said.
"They want us to show movement on this," Herman responded. "We want to get some federal money, maybe some state money, and we would greatly appreciate it if the city would write a letter of support for this project. We want to make sure Insitu stays here, and we've been working with them."
Herman said the Port of Klickitat is spearheading a campaign to get action on the access issue. He pointed out that alternate access for Bingen Point has been discussed since the early 1990s, and it was time for action.
Bingen council member Guillermo Fisch asked what solution to get across the railroad tracks made the most sense.
"Is there an initial preference for an overpass or an underpass?" asked Fisch.
"If it's an overpass, it would have to go over State Route 14 and the railroad tracks. The entrance to the bridge would need to begin north of SR 14," Herman said.
"Looking at costs, the underpass is the best option," said Brending. "An overpass would cost a lot more money. It was deemed not feasible (in 1991) because of the amount of land that would have to be taken out -- a lot of private property on the north side of the railroad tracks."
Whether considering an overpass or underpass, a fix is likely to be costly. In 2001, a Washington Rail Office feasibility study estimated that building an underpass beneath the railroad right of way would cost about $10 million -- in 2001 dollars.
"This is a conservative, but realistic estimate based on the information available," explained Kevin Jeffers, an engineer with the Rail Office, in a 2001 memo regarding the project. "The unit costs are based on Rail Office experience with projects in other locations of the state."
An undercrossing would most likely be south of the Cedar Street/State Route 14 intersection, in effect extending Cedar Street under the tracks and on to Bingen Point. The existing crossing at Maple Street is 0.12 miles west of the proposed location for an underpass.
"Your requirements for the Cedar Street extension are: Width under tracks: 44 feet wide, which includes two 12 foot lanes, one 12 foot turn lane, and two four foot shoulders; and roadway clearance of 16.5 feet to accommodate over-height vehicles from the Port and industrial operations," Jeffers wrote in his 2001 memo.
Brending stressed that a new entrance to Bingen Point would not solely serve Insitu, noting that SDS Lumber, Dickey Farms, the Port of Klickitat, and recreationalists would all benefit.
Yet with so many stakeholders, Brending conceded getting action would be a daunting process.
"There are some hurdles in the way. It's a challenging project for the Port, Washington Department of Transportation, the county, and the railroad," she said. "We don't know how much money we'll need to complete this project, but we need to elevate this issue in the eyes of our political leaders."
"We need to get a consortium together to start discussing this," added Herman.
Council member Laura Mann said she strongly supported creating another access point, and backed sending a letter to that effect.
"But I don't think we should limit ourselves to Insitu in the letter," Mann said. "There are many other businesses and employees down there. At any one time there could be 1,000 people trapped (in the event of a derailment that blocks the roadway). We need to make our letter more meaty and forceful."
Heeding Mann's suggestions, Bingen's council members unanimously approved sending a letter to U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, and Gov. Chris Gregoire.
"The Port of Klickitat at Bingen Point is an important industrial center for the western portion of Klickitat County and is of particular importance to the Bingen-White Salmon community. The Port of Klickitat is headquarters for Insitu, Inc., a firm producing unmanned aircraft systems with approximately 700 employees. Other small light-industrial firms with an additional employee base of more than 300 also make Bingen Point their home ... In addition, Bingen Point is a heavily used recreational area,"
reads an excerpt of the letter, dated Jan. 5. "If the train is stopped or an accident has occurred at the crossing, access to Bingen Point is blocked, trapping a large number of people and hampering emergency response to the Port. An additional access point into Bingen Point is critical ... We welcome your input into this critical issue and request your consideration of federal funding to move the development of an additional access point forward."
The letter was signed by Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes.
The next night, the city of White Salmon approved support of a similar letter of its own with a 4-0 vote.
After the meetings, Brending stressed the importance of quickly beginning the engineering process for the proposed undercrossing.
"A project of this magnitude requires a lot of study," she explained. "This issue has been languishing for years, but now there really is a reason to move forward. It's not just Insitu. We're starting to see more growth out at Bingen Point. Getting this on the table and bringing the key stakeholders together is critical."
As of press time on Tuesday, Insitu representatives had not responded to a request for comment.