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Rail traffic study IDs problem rail crossings; will look at solutions and host public engagement session.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - A unit train passes through Scappoose at Havlik Drive in September 2021.The Port of Columbia County is leading local efforts to identify which of the county's 48 key public rail crossings are the highest priority for infrastructure improvements.

The port concluded the first phase of the Columbia County Rail Safety and Mobility Study in 2020 and is now beginning phase two with a public Q&A scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16, over Zoom.

Phase two will involve gathering more public input; developing "conceptual solutions" for up to three crossings; and determining which crossing would be the best candidate for a grade-separated crossing, meaning an underpass or overpass.

Scott Jensen, a Port of Columbia County planner who facilitated the study from engineering consultants WSP, said rail traffic is both an economic development and safety issue.

The study identified nine of the rail crossings on the Portland & Western Railroad line as tier-one, or top priority, based on safety and traffic data and public input.

All nine tier-one crossings are in South Columbia County, with three in Scappoose, five in St. Helens and one just north of Columbia City.

Eight of the tier-one crossings traverse high traffic streets that connect to U.S. Highway 30.

The Columbia City crossing, however, cuts directly across Highway 30, where vehicles cross the track an average of 8,550 times per day, according to the study.

Crossings near schools were also in tier one, including Gable Road in St. Helens and High School Way in Scappoose.

The High School Way and Crown Zellerbach Road crossings didn't make it to tier-one status based on vehicle delays, but because of safety concerns.

Of the tier-one crossings, High School Way is the only one to have a fatal collision between a train and someone crossing the tracks in the last 

The backlog of buses waiting to cross the tracks on High School Way was identified as a "key concern."

The crossing at Crown Zellerbach Road in Scappoose was identified as a concern, in part because of the expected industrial growth in the northeast portion of town, near the airport and Portland Community College's new facility.

The St. Helens rail yard, between Gable Road and Columbia Boulevard, also adds to delays.

"Crossings can often be blocked for extended periods as trains are assembled or broken down within the yard, blocking traffic on Columbia Avenue and St. Helens Street and queueing traffic onto Highway 30," the study states.

Some of the issues identified seem to have no feasible solution. Consultants interviewed multiple people who brought up the proximity of the highway to the railroad and the inadequate width of the highway, but neither seem likely to change.

But stakeholders also identified issues at specific crossings, which have more realistic solutions.

Stakeholders identified storage capacity along the railroad as a "contributing factor for problematic railroad crossings," the study states.

"These stakeholders suggested that storage capacity is insufficient in south county, necessitating some trains to block crossings and create unacceptably long wait times. Stakeholders also indicate that sidings in Columbia City and Scappoose are only rarely used, leaving the St. Helens yard (which is insufficient in length) as the primary storage space for trains," the study explained.

Gable Road was cited as "the most dangerous and inconvenient."

Unit trains — which are trains on which all cars carry the same commodity to the same destination, averaging just under 100 cars per train locally — pass through Columbia County an average of three and a half times per month, the study stated. Manifest trains, which are more varied in length, travel the local rail line on average more than four times per day.

Manifest trains roughly one-third of a mile long can take around two minutes to cross an intersection — if the train travels straight through, without stopping.

"The worst congestion events occur in Scappoose during the morning and afternoon school traffic periods and in St. Helens when trains are broken apart at the St. Helens yard," the study notes.

In Scappoose, the railroad separates the five schools that share a bus system, with two on the west side and three on the east side.

Jensen told Scappoose city councilors that some crossings, like High School Way, don't look particularly special to an outsider.

"But locally, we know that the buses are trying to cross the tracks there. That's a very slow process for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon," Jensen said.

Through the public engagement process, "we want to find out that kind of information (that) just doesn't show up in the basic look," Jensen added. "It's not like this is going to be buildable plans, but we're trying to get the right knowledge and trying to get the right information, so we come up with some good ideas."

Phase one cost roughly $50,000, funded by $7,500 each from Global Partners, NEXT Renewable Fuels, Teevin Brothers, and the Scappoose and St. Helens city governments; $10,000 from Columbia County; and additional funds from Columbia Economic Team, Clatskanie and Columbia City.

Phase two will cost $84,000. Jensen said the port has committed $34,000 and received a grant from Business Oregon for $30,000. Portland & Western, a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming, "has committed engineering staff time to the project in lieu of cash support."

"The plan has always been to get the public engagement process going and then start talking to major rail users and project partners to complete the phase two funding," Jensen explained.

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