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Unit train safety, land development goals unite

by: Darryl Swan, Motorists pull out from Havlik Road onto Highway 30. The city is seeking a funding source to make rail improvements needed to open an extension of Havlik Road to the city’s south end (through traffic light at right). If successful, it would ease traffic and open land to commercial development.

Scappoose city leaders are leaning in favor of an idea born out of the private business sector that would keep the city intact when mile-and-a-half long unit trains make their appearance next month.

A second effect is that the city could finally nail down a viable plan for its long-sought-after swimming pool, and property located in the south end of town would be unlocked to allow for more commercial development.

The likely scenario is that the city will draft a tax initiative for the May ballot to finance $2.8 million of the estimated $3.5 million Havlik Road extension project.

The trains are slated to arrive next month and will haul Midwest-grown corn to the Cascade Grain ethanol plant at Port Westward, north of Clatskanie.

But even with a proposed funding source, Scappoose residents and emergency personnel are facing more than two years of a train presence that will drive a wedge right through the city's center.

'Everybody is targeting 2010. I think that's a realistic timeframe,' said Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken for project completion. 'If we could get it done sooner, I think that would be good.'

Hanken said there is 'absolutely' an economic development effect associated with the Havlik Road extension. In fact, the city had embarked on a periodic review process to assess how the city would grow, a process that anticipated looking at the south Havlik Road area as possible future growth zones. That process has since been placed on pause.

Len Waggoner is a land-use consultant working with Dave Scharf, the developer who has envisioned an athletic center located on 8.5 acres east of the tracks and south of the Spring-lake retirement community. In earlier discussions, the City Council has expressed a desire to work with Scharf to use money generated from a 1998 ordinance to raise funds for swimming pool construction.

City officials have hesitated to use funds to build a pool, arguing that once the pool was built there would be no money left over for maintenance. The original ordinance calls for joint operation of the pool between the city and the Scappoose Parks and Recreation District, which is absent a stable funding source and is largely defunct.

Also, there has been criticism of the pool specifications outlined in the ordinance. The ordinance calls for a basic indoor pool with six to eight lanes.

Waggoner at a Dec. 17 City Council meeting pitched initiative or referendum options for funding the Havlik Road project, which has largely failed to attract strong federal grant support.

At a meeting on Dec. 24, the council expressed its intent to move the proposal forward - a more appealing scenario for the private developers - that would cancel out the need for a signature-gathering process.

'All they have done is accelerate the curve by saying I don't have to go out and get signatures,' Waggoner said.

In 2002, shortly after learning of the planned ethanol plant and its estimated impact on traffic, the City Council launched a rail corridor study, one of the first of its type in the state, aimed at identifying ways to circumvent the trains.

Finding a money source for the fix has proven troublesome. In 2005, a city application for the necessary funds failed to garner a federal appropriation. The city has established a separate Havlik Road fund that has amassed $200,000, and fees levied on new construction have earned roughly $500,000.

Opening Havlik Road, a 500-foot stretch of pavement used primarily to access Fred Meyer and commercial centers in the city's south end, to areas across the tracks and east of Highway 30 will create a long enough continuum to maintain a gateway across the tracks.

In order to build the rail crossing, the tracks need to be raised 17 inches to meet federal safety standards.

'We need to make the adjustments for safety, and there are a whole bunch of rules that we are required to follow,' Hanken said. Other than raising the tracks, the city must also close a rail crossing - in this case, the crossing at Santosh Street - before it can open a new one.

The trains will divide the east and west sides of the city for around nine minutes, on average, for each arrival. During rail improvements, when the trains are required to be 'walked' over the construction areas, the delay could be as long as 30 minutes.

'I think sometime down the road, there is going to be a problem,' Hanken said. 'The big issue with this is safety, and I can't stress that enough. When you start looking at a mile-and-a-half-long train going through town at a low speed, it's going to back up the intersections.'