Fairview, county officials work to get widening project back on track

FAIRVIEW - A railroad underpass widening project that has been in the works for years has been delayed yet again.

Work on the 223rd Avenue underpass was set to begin Oct. 1, but that project has been postponed indefinitely because of a new legal demand issued by the Union Pacific Railroad.

As the construction start date was pushed back because of funding problems, so were the dates when the railroad would need to redirect service around the bridge.

In order to prevent disruptions to the train service through the area, Multnomah County will pay railroad employees to work as flaggers, alerting the construction crews that they need get out of the way for incoming trains.

Although only a few trains go by most days, up to 16 trains cross the tracks on busy days.

The original contract allowed for only a 24-hour closure, but a railroad official got the window up to 36 hours, said Robert Maestre, Multnomah County deputy director of community service.

However, newer versions of the contract allow the county only 28 hours to replace the steel structure supporting the tracks, Maestre said.

Anything beyond that could result in unlimited fines.

'There's got to be some other way to do this,' Maestre said, adding that he would like to 'open up communication' with the railroad's corporate officials.

Maestre said county officials are looking for creative ways to solve the problem and have even pondered offering to pay the railroad to do part of the work.

'(The contract) essentially says if there's a delay, the contractor has to pay for the cost of that delay … which would be calculated right then based on what's going on across the country,' Maestre said.

Although $6.6 million dollars for a road project may seem like an astronomical figure to most East County residents, Maestre said, in the grand scheme of things, it is a relatively small project that will likely attract small- to medium-size contractors.

The problem is that most small contracting firms will be unwilling or unable to absorb the risk that could be associated with the project, Maestre said.

Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby is concerned about the delay.

'Everybody realizes the importance of this project,' Weatherby said. 'It's a public safety issue.'

When the project is completed, it could potentially benefit the railroad as well, Maestre said.

While crews work to widen the underpass, they will build the cement abutments the railroad would need to build a separate track or a full parallel line at that site.

County officials began working with Union Pacific Railroad representatives last year to discuss the best times to close the track, as construction was originally slated to begin Jan. 1, Maestre said.

The bottleneck has caused concern about developing the Townsend Business Park, an industrial area north of Sandy Boulevard. An inability to get large trucks through the main approach to the property has slowed growth in the area.

The narrow underpass doesn't leave room for safe passage of pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

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