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Washington State DOT Clears Up Railroad Congestion with Barker Road/BNSF Grade Separation Project

by: Larry Bernstein
Crews work on the supports for the future overpass on Baker Road which will run over a heavily-used railroad that causes traffic backups in Spokane Valley, Washington.
Crews work on the supports for the future overpass on Baker Road which will run over a heavily-used railroad that causes traffic backups in Spokane Valley, Washington.
Safety improvements, better traffic flow, and improved economic opportunities are a recipe for a successful construction project. The Barker Road/BNSF Grade Separation Project, which is taking place in Spokane Valley, Washington, offers each of these benefits.

Spokane Valley is in northeastern Washington, just a few miles from the Idaho border. The BNSF Railway, the largest freight railroad network in North America and the main transcontinental line between west coast ports and the U.S. interior regularly pass through the city.

Just how regularly? Sixty freight trains pass through the city every day. The cumulative time of gate-down time averages two hours and 42 minutes per day. And if that’s not enough, two passenger trains pass through a day as well. The traffic on Barker Road, which has an average daily traffic count of approximately 5,500 vehicles, is halted when the gates go down. Commercial and industrial vehicles transporting goods in the American Northwest and Canada make up the bulk of the traffic on the road.

The lengthy and frequent train crossing leads to traffic congestion and noise pollution. It also limits emergency capability for vehicles. Lastly, it impairs access to available industrial properties in the northeast area of the city.

The team is constructing at an overpass where the BNSF Railway mainline intersects with Barker Road. A second construction element, which is taking place at the adjacent intersection of State Route 290 – also known as Trent Avenue, and Barker Road – is a two-lane roundabout.

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Other minor elements included in the scope of work are the relocation of overhead utilities and installing two large retaining walls to support the road embankment. Completion of the work will result in the elimination of two at-grade rail crossings, the crossing of Barker Road and the adjacent crossing at Flora Road.

Construction Challenges
One of the challenges involved in the project was property negotiations. “We had to acquire property rights from 20 plus parcels from business and residents,” says Bill Helbig, the City Engineer for Spokane Valley.

A second issue was related to rock blasting. A utility provider had concerns that the rock blasting required for the project would damage critical telecommunication infrastructure next to the project. The infrastructure is essential in providing 9-1-1 services for a nearby small town.

“The infrastructure in question is old and shallow, and the utility provider felt the vibration could cause damage,” says Gloria Mantz, Engineering Manager for the City of Spokane Valley, who oversees the city’s Capital Improvement Program. Although the project team did not expect damages, they decided to provide additional blasting experts and expand coordination with the utility provider. The telecommunication infrastructure was not damaged during construction.

Economic Benefits
The Northeast Industrial Area (NIA) is an industrialized zoned area located on the Northeastern edge of Spokane Valley. The 600-acre park had been mostly vacant since the city was incorporated in 2003.  

Since 2016, there has been a push to invigorate the area. At that time, the city was awarded a grant by the Washington State Department of Commerce to complete a planned action ordinance, which the city adopted. Therefore, projects that qualify as a planned action may use a streamlined permitting process – when it comes to an environmental review – leading to added predictability and time and cost savings.

The Barker Road/BNSF Grade Separation Project is expected to enhance the development of hundreds of acres of the NIA and attract new businesses and jobs. The project will also simplify travel in and around the NIA.

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The economic benefits of the project are already apparent. The NIA has gone from mostly undeveloped properties to having 60 to 70 percent either occupied property or property currently under development. Among the occupants is Amazon, which recently opened a 1.3 million-square-foot fulfillment center that’s expected to employ 1,000 people.

‘Well-Defined Scope of Work’
Serving as the primary contractor for this project is Max J. Kuney Company. Kuney, who has worked on city projects previously, won the contract since they were the lowest, responsible, responsive bidder.

The budget for the project is $26 million, and it is on budget. “The design team developed a well-defined scope of work, and the Washington State Department of Transportation has done a good job managing the project,” Helbig says.

Funding for the project has come from multiple sources, including federal, state, and city governments. A significant portion of the funding came via a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant. Just 41 projects received such funding – and no others in Washington – the year this project received the grant.

“We believe this project received a TIGER grant because of the many benefits it offers including eliminating the train crossing, improving emergency access, and the economic benefits related to the NIA and the strong support of our state and federal legislators,” Mantz says.

Construction on the project began in March and is scheduled to be complete by the summer of 2022. The roundabout was the first phase completed and it is now open to east and west-bound traffic on State Route 290. 

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When the entire project is complete, the public will see many benefits including improved emergency access, reduced traffic congestion, better traffic flow, a reduction in the severity of potential crashes by replacing the stop control intersection with a roundabout, and improved economic development. With all these benefits, it’s no surprise the city of Spokane Valley is excited to deliver this project.

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