Bumpy railroad crossings in Walla Walla get attention

Inspections will now move to a quarterly schedule.

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A tire gets airborne at the Ninth Avenue railroad crossing on Saturday morning. According to officials with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, owners of the railroad reported fixing this crossing and three others last month. Commission inspectors say they will be stepping up inspections for 2011, and said Walla Walla would be an area of 'higher emphasis” for them.

WALLA WALLA - One of the bumpiest high-traffic railroad crossings in the area has been fixed, according to a recently submitted work-completed report, said Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission staff.

But on Saturday morning, motorists were still seen slowing down, veering left or right, or just plowing straight through at full speed and getting jostled about at the Ninth Avenue railroad crossing, north of Plaza Way.

"We are kind of at a point right now where the railroad has told us that they already repaired all these in September," said Dave Pratt, a deputy assistant director with the commission.

Pratt was referring to a notice of work-completed his department received from Palouse River & Coulee City Railroad relating to four mandatory repairs requested by inspectors and sent to the railroad company in August.

The four crossings that were supposed to have been fixed were the Airport Way crossing just north of Isaacs Avenue, the Rose Street crossing at 13th Avenue, the Avery Street crossing off of Rose Street and the Ninth Avenue crossing.

Of the four, the Airport Way crossing has been fixed and is now a smooth drive for numerous students who use the road as a gateway to Walla Walla Community College.

As for the other three crossings, inspectors said they received a report from the railroad they were fixed, but all three are still a bumpy ride. And in the case of the Ninth Avenue crossing, the tires on some trailers and even some vehicles got airborne going over the crossing on Saturday morning.

"I can assure you that if they have not (made the repairs), we will get back to that railroad," Pratt added.

In an interview on Friday with Utilities and Transportation Commission staff, Pratt explained that his department received notice the repairs had been made last month. But if the work wasn't completed to satisfactory levels, inspectors will be in town this week, he added.

Such follow-up inspections are rare, due to limited staff, and that often leaves railroad companies operating on more of an honor system, with the only checks and balances being the complaining public, Pratt explained.

"We have five inspectors that cover the entire state," Pratt said, noting that three of those five are dedicated to monitoring crossing safety issues, not road conditions.

"What that means is that we typically visit every crossing once every three years. So that means we are spread very thin ... We typically rely on the railroad to self-report, or rely on the citizens of the city to say they didn't get it fixed," Pratt said.

The last time commission inspectors were in the area was in May, and prior to that inspectors were in Walla Walla in April 2009.

But Walla Walla crossings may see more inspections in the future, explained Kathy Hunter, a deputy assistant and director with the commission.

After a determination by Utilities and Transportation Commission staff that Walla Walla seems to be having more than its fair share of bumpy crossings, inspections will now move to a quarterly schedule, Hunter said.

"What has happened is that the pattern we have seen here is we issue a notice, then we receive a notice that the railroad has made some efforts to fix the crossings. But what we are seeing is that crossings may need further changes or work," Hunter said.

She went on to explain that in many cases the railroad will fix an uneven panel over a single lane, only to have the lane next to it buckle. She added that extreme weather conditions will also exacerbate the buckling that occurs, especially with rubber panel crossings.

The three most common railroad crossing materials in the area are wood plank, rubber panel and concrete. Of the three, Pratt and Hunter prefer concrete. But they added there is a considerable cost difference.

According to Pratt, the railroads own the property and therefore can determine what material they will use.

Fines from the Utilities and Transportation Commission are usually $100 for failure to make repairs within 30 days, and under special circumstances fines can go as high as $1,000. But those cases rare and require a vote of the utilities commissioners, Pratt added.

"We don't like to take the penalty route because it takes money away from what they could be using for repairs. But when I send a letter out like that, they generally get that done," Pratt said.

The cost to make the repairs can easily be several thousand dollars, while the cost for a complete overhaul with concrete can be anywhere up to $100,000 or more, depending on the size of the crossing, Pratt said.

As for the city's or county's role in the process, neither has any jurisdiction over the maintenance of railroad crossings, but in the past counties and municipalities have been known to complain to the Utilities and Transportation Commission.

And in 2008, the city of Walla Walla listed several crossing that needed repair, including three of the four now under scrutiny.

Hunter added that later this month Utilities and Transportation Commission staff will be meeting with city public works officials to take on the issue of Walla Walla's bumpy crossings.

"We have decided that this is going to be an area of higher emphasis, so you can expect more inspection in 2011," Hunter said.

An interview with Palouse River & Coulee City Railroad in Lewiston, Idaho, could not obtained prior to publication of this story.

People interested in registering a railroad crossing complaint to the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission can call Lori Halstead at 360-664-1262 or e-mail lhalstea@utc.wa.gov.

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