FAIRVIEW - A liability issue that threatens to derail the $6.6 million project to replace the railroad underpass on Northeast 223rd Avenue drew officials from a host of local and regional governments to a meeting Thursday, April 12.

Citing 'a very, very tight timeline,' Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler said it was critical that the issue - which officials would not disclose - be resolved so county commissioners can accept a federal loan for the project. Some construction funds could be lost without this last critical piece of financing, putting the overall replacement project in jeopardy.

The final design of the new underpass is complete, steel for the work has been purchased and site work is scheduled to begin in the fall, according to an April 3 county commissioner briefing.

Attorneys for Multnomah County and Union Pacific are hashing out fiscal penalties - potentially thousands of dollars an hour - that the county would have to pay if construction runs longer than scheduled.

At Tuesday's meeting, Wheeler said that overruns at the 223rd Avenue site could spark delays throughout Union Pacific's entire rail line. The railroad company, which says the county is fiscally responsible for such delays, has required that the project be completed within a 36-hour span before it would start penalizing the county.

County officials are confident the project can be completed within the 36-hour window, Wheeler said. The plan involves using certain building materials and being able to stop the project if weather factors or other problems arise and complete it later.

'We can get it done in that time period,' he said.

But at issue is another liability matter that Union Pacific recently brought forward. Wheeler would not say what the issue concerns, and reporters at Tuesday's meeting were asked to leave so officials could discuss their response to the railroad.

Asked if the issue had been resolved, Wheeler said, 'I think so.' A couple of strategies were developed that would allow the underpass project to move forward, he said. The project is 'a huge priority' for all of Multnomah County, Wheeler said.

'And the county is going to get it done,' he said.

The time crunch arises from the fact that the liability issue, whatever it may be, must be resolved by May 18. That is the county commissioners' 'last opportunity to act on' the $1 million federal loan before the funding is pulled in June, Wheeler said.

'Federal funds are not an indefinite commitment,' he said.

The underpass, built in 1916, is a county priority because of safety concerns. It's not large enough for two big trucks or buses to pass each other, has no space for pedestrians or bicyclists and is near an industrial park, a school and a church.

Union Pacific currently owns the site, but has said it will not assume liability for the new, improved underpass. Wheeler said there is still the question of whether concern over liability is viable.

'The railroad says (liability) does' exist, he said. 'We're not willing to say it even exists.'

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