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Jan. 26, 2023

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Closing Ridgefield railroad crossing falls off rails

Agreement to make Division Street private hits bumps

By , Columbian staff writer
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A motorist stops at the Division Street railroad crossing in Ridgefield as a construction sign is seen near the tracks.
A motorist stops at the Division Street railroad crossing in Ridgefield as a construction sign is seen near the tracks. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The lonesome sound of a train whistle rolling across a moonlit landscape. It’s ultimate Americana. But for those living near the Division Street rail crossing in Ridgefield, a little train whistle (or horn) goes a long way. They just want the peace and quiet they say they’ve been promised for years.

When the Port of Ridgefield’s $15 million Pioneer Street rail overpass was being planned, it included closing old crossings to eliminate the need for train horns or whistles. When the overpass was completed in late 2021, residents hoped that long-awaited peace and quiet was just around the bend.

“From the get-go, they said Mill Street is going to be closed and Division Street will become a private crossing,” said resident Tim Frederickson, who also happens to be a locomotive engineer for another rail company.

A private crossing would prohibit public access, but emergency vehicles would still be able to cross the rail line owned and operated by BNSF Railway. It would also mean train horns or whistle would no longer have to be sounded.

“They’re selling it to the public, there’s multiple things on the city’s website and the port (of Ridgefield) website saying it will create no more whistles through Ridgefield,” Frederickson said. “They said it will make this town have no more whistles.”

Complaints about the sound of trains roaring through town certainly aren’t new, nor complaints about their whistles and horns. Train horns range between 96 and 110 decibels, and the sound can carry for miles. Federal law requires a horn be sounded at all public crossings for 15-20 seconds, 24 hours a day, to warn motorists and pedestrians of an approaching train.

Nearly six months after the overpass opened, the fate of the Division Street crossing remains unclear. Frederickson said finding that out has been a challenge.

“What complicates things is that it is a Port of Ridgefield project that once completed they hand to the city,” Frederickson said. “If you say there’s a problem and you go to the port, they say it’s a completed project so it’s the city’s. If you go to the city they say, ‘The project was done by the port, we’re just taking it over.’ But of course, they talk.”

Frederickson noted having several agencies involved in addition to the city, port and BNSF, made it even more difficult. Those agencies include the Utility Transportation Commission, Washington State Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration.

Unlike the Mill Street crossing, the Division Street crossing needs to remain accessible to emergency vehicles so they can get to the waterfront area if the overpass is closed.

“First responders, especially the fire district, raised concerns about only having one way in or out of the waterfront area. We have existing residents in homes down on the waterfront now and the port has plans for waterfront redevelopment that would include a lot of people and jobs and services,” said City Manager Steve Stuart, adding two access points are required by the city’s fire code.

The delay in getting the crossing closed to the public comes down to contract negotiations between the city and BNSF. At issue is a clause in the agreement that would allow BNSF to terminate the agreement for any reason with 30 days’ notice. Instead, the city wants the language changed to limit “BNSF termination to circumstances where the city has violated the agreement and failed to cure” the violation, according to an Oct. 14, 2019, email between Stuart and BNSF.

“I think we’re all hopeful that we can get to an agreement that benefits the railroad, benefits the residents downtown now and in the future,” Stuart said.

Stuart said the worry is that BNSF would terminate the agreement then close the crossing entirely.

“We had conversations in the fall, but then it kind of went quiet. The draft we received from BNSF allowed BNSF to cancel the agreement for any cause at any time. The city’s attorney raised that issue and said that doesn’t meet the intent of all the parties to assure that first responders have access,” Stuart said. “If BNSF could terminate the agreement for any reason at any time, then that would take away first responders’ access to the waterfront.”

Despite explanations from the city, and a request to change the language, BNSF doesn’t seem to be willing to make concessions.

“We do work cooperatively with communities across our network on both public and private crossing agreements. The language in the private crossing agreement is standard language used across our network,” said Lena Kent, general director for public affairs for BNSF.

What happens if the city and BNSF can’t reach an agreement?

“If the city is unwilling to enter into an agreement, then Division Street would remain a public crossing,” Kent said.

But Stuart said he optimistic they’ll come to consensus.

“We’ve definitely been having more conversations with BNSF recently about getting that agreement finalized. I am hopeful we’ll have something soon that will benefit the railroad and local residents now and in the future.”

Meanwhile, the city has done some work in anticipation of the crossing being closed. A fence was installed and curbs added to the approach. When negotiations stalled, those had to be removed, which was done the week of March 7.

Frederickson also said the Mill Street crossing was closed before the city even filed the needed paperwork.

“They removed a road that went to (the crossing), they took the panels out, they turned the power off to the gates, without talking to the Utility Transportation Commission,” he said. “The UTC was furious. You cannot do that. You have to talk to them first and get approval. You can’t just decide it’s not a crossing anymore.”