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Underpass needs final push

The railroad underpass on Northeast 223rd Avenue has been in place for nearly a century - and it's been in need of replacement for decades.

The structure is so narrow that two buses cannot pass through it at the same time. It has no space for pedestrians or bicycles. It poses a safety hazard for motorists and impedes economic development in the city of Fairview.

It was for all those compelling reasons that local officials have worked so hard the past several years to secure funding to replace the underpass. Last week, the final $1 million needed for the project, which falls under Multnomah County's jurisdiction, was awarded. But completion of the underpass is still not assured.

As we've reported in the past, the Union Pacific Railroad has raised liability issues that threaten the underpass project. Now, those issues have reached a critical point - if they aren't resolved quickly, some of the project's funding will expire and this underpass, built in 1916, may never be replaced.

Such an outcome obviously is unacceptable. Multnomah County officials are meeting this week with leaders of the four cities in East County to see if they can find solutions to two liability issues. One question is who will be responsible if trains have to be diverted for more than the 36 hours being allowed by Union Pacific. A larger question is who will own the bridge and assume the liability now that Union Pacific - which has been content to own an aging, 91-year-old underpass - has decided it cannot take on the risk of owning an improved, modern underpass.

Local officials could rail against Union Pacific and wish that it would be more reasonable in its demands. But even if Union Pacific were inclined to listen, it would take months to effect a change in railroad policy. By then, the funding will be gone. So it is up to local officials - primarily in Fairview and Multnomah County - to hammer out an agreement that minimizes the legal risks while allowing the project to move forward.

The funding for the underpass won't hold together much longer. And if the package falls apart, this hazardous underpass may not get the help it needs until it too disintegrates.