Builders are working on the railroad

Land is being cleared, leveled for new bypass track in Vancouver

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Excavators are eating into a slope above BNSF Railway’s main line in the Fruit Valley neighborhood.

The work is to prepare the site for a 3.2-mile-long set of bypass tracks designed to help ease a railroad chokepoint in Vancouver. The new line will run along the east side of the BNSF main line from downtown Vancouver all the way to the Fruit Valley Road overpass.

Contractors demolished two old houses on the west-facing slope last week.

BNSF is contracting to do the earthwork north of the 39th Street overpass, which will replace a bumpy grade-level crossing over seven sets of tracks in west Vancouver. The $11.6 million overpass also will accommodate the new bypass track paralleling the east edge of the railway’s yard.

The entire $150 million project is due to be finished in 2013.

The Washington Department of Transportation is overseeing the project, which taps state and federal funding.

State officials believe it will also qualify for federal economic stimulus funding for high-speed passenger rail, although a specific allocation has not yet been awarded.

Officials say the bypass tracks, along with a slew of other improvements planned by the city and the Port of Vancouver, ultimately will free up space to accommodate projected increases in freight traffic while improving the speed and on-time reliability of passenger trains. The state plans to add two Amtrak Cascades trains to the four daily round-trip journeys currently operating between Portland and Seattle.

The Vancouver project is among several along the BNSF main line in Western Washington.

“It’s a necessary piece to make the program work,” said David Smelser, project delivery manager for the DOT’s high-speed rail program. “Vancouver’s a step toward that.”

The laying of track won’t occur until after right-of-way has been acquired between 39th Street and the southern end of the bypass near 8th Street in downtown Vancouver. However, BNSF crews and contractors began excavating the slope north of 39th Street last month.

“BNSF and WashDOT both recognized this dirt’s going to have to move at some point,” Smelser said.

Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said engineering and surveying actually began in September. Twenty-five graders, excavators and heavy trucks are scooping dirt along the hillside, he said.

Some of that material is being trucked to the Port of Vancouver, where contractors are filling and leveling a new site for light-industrial expansion on the former Rufener farm in the Vancouver Lake lowlands.

Rail feeding ships

In fact, the port is in the midst of a rail-enhancement program of its own.

The port recently finished a $14.2 million set of loop tracks at the site of the former Alcoa aluminum smelter, which the port acquired two years ago. The 35,000 feet of track can easily accommodate mile-long unit trains without clogging the BNSF main line.

Port officials believe they are well-positioned for growth.

The port already handles 16 percent of all American wheat exports, and officials foresee growing demand in Asia for agricultural products such as beef, corn and soybeans. Much of those products will logically arrive in Vancouver via Union Pacific and BNSF main lines extending across the northern tier of the United States, through the Columbia River Gorge.

“Rail is really key for us,” said Curtis Shuck, the port’s economic development director. “We are located on a more efficient route from the agricultural-producing states.”

To that end, the port anticipates spending a total of $137 million in rail projects, roughly tripling the port’s capacity to 160,000 rail cars per year.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.