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Backup Crossing Is Overdue

Editorial for Jan. 13, 2011

The Port of Klickitat is moving into high gear to resolve a long-standing concern associated with its Bingen Point holdings, and it's a wise move.

The issue: There is only one public access road leading to and from Bingen Point -- Maple Street in Bingen. With additional development in the Bingen Point area sparked by Insitu and other businesses, ongoing recreational use, and with Maple Street also being the primary access into SDS Lumber Co., one access is not sufficient. A viable backup is needed.

The key problem is the fact that a main east-west route of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway crosses Maple Street. As it stands currently, if there is a derailment at that crossing, access to and from Bingen Point could be completely blocked.

Preparing for worst case scenarios is the responsibility of emergency officials, and a derailment is certainly possible -- in fact, derailments and car/train accidents have happened before in that area. One of the most spectacular came in 1961, when a long freight train smashed into a log truck, sending dozens of cars onto their sides on both sides of the tracks near SDS.

Given this reality, it is common sense to have another way to get emergency equipment such as fire trucks and ambulances to the area. As it is, the Bingen Fire Department has wisely stationed a fire truck on the south side of the railroad tracks in the event freight cars derail or some other railroad emergency results in the crossing being blocked for hours. With a fire truck pre-positioned, individual firefighters could get to the truck and use it to fight a fire or deal with a chemical spill while the crossing remains blocked.

That's smart, but it doesn't resolve another key issue: What if someone has a heart attack or some other medical emergency requiring an ambulance to respond if the railroad crossing is blocked? Even without a derailment, a passing train could block the crossing for several minutes -- minutes that could be vital in getting an ambulance to a heart attack victim.

There are other access points that could be used to get to Bingen Point in an emergency, but the other crossings are not designed for public use, are not always open, and are substandard. For example, there is a very narrow underpass with low clearance at the west end of the SDS property, but modern fire trucks would not be able to make it through.

There is also the Walnut Street crossing in Bingen, which goes directly into the SDS Lumber Co. mill area, and a private, gated grade crossing a half-mile or so east of Maple Street. Those alternates could be used in an emergency, but if a long freight train derails, it is quite possible those crossings would also be blocked anyway. The reality is, another at-grade crossing would not resolve the issue being looked at here.

Further, an overpass is not only prohibitively expensive, it would almost certainly require a number of homes north of the railroad tracks and State Route 14 to be torn down to make way for a bridge. That's not going to be acceptable.

That leaves an underpass as the only realistic way to provide another access to Bingen Point. Yet it's important to remember that even with an underpass, there are no guarantees access would remain open. Let's face it: A serious derailment could see freight cars falling off the tracks and obstructing the underpass -- but at least having two options offers much better odds.

The bottom line, however, is that this is a project that needs to be acted on. The Port of Klickitat is doing the right thing in calling new attention to this concern and beginning the lengthy process to get it fixed.

There is a real need here, and it's a legitimate public safety issue. Now the key players -- the Port of Klickitat, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the cities of Bingen and White Salmon, Klickitat County, and the Washington Department of Transportation all need to sit down together and figure out the best, most efficient way forward.

JB

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