Design work expected to begin soon on adjusting A Street alignment

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Portland and Western Railroad runs along much of A Street in downtown Rainier.The alignment of the Portland and Western Railroad along A Street through Rainier’s riverfront downtown — a treacherous stretch where the rails divide the street almost down the center — has long been a source of concern for the city, state and railroad, not to mention local businesses, motorists and residents.

But after years in limbo, state officials are expressing confidence that the issue is finally on its way to being resolved.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is working out a contract with Portland-based David Evans and Associates Inc. for design work on the project, according to ODOT area manager Larry McKinley.

“They’re going to come in, and they’ll be ... most likely, there will be daylighting of the rail, and crossing [and] intersection improvements with crossing gates to protect both pedestrian and vehicular traffic,” McKinley said Friday, Dec. 27.

The asphalt in the road will be removed from the tracks, McKinley explained, removing the railroad from the right-of-way along the street.

“You won’t be able to drive down the railroad tracks,” said McKinley.

“Everything that needs to happen to make it so that the cars and people and the trains don’t mix,” added Mark Ellsworth, a Regional Solutions coordinator in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office.

The governor’s office has taken an interest in the project, which is one of many transportation initiatives vying for state funding through the ConnectOregon V grant program.

Forty-two million dollars are available through ConnectOregon V, and state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said the Rainier project is asking for $4 million.

“It’s a competitive process,” Ellsworth admitted. “We certainly hope that we can qualify for a Connect grant on this.”

Johnson said the project cost is estimated at $6 million, although she cautioned that figure may increase or decrease in the future.

“I could get to six [million dollars] by putting together this mosaic of sources,” Johnson said Dec. 20, naming Regional Solutions, ODOT and ConnectOregon among the prospective funding sources. “I could easily get to six.”

The picture of how A Street will look once the project is complete — McKinley predicted construction will not begin until at least 2016 — is expected to become clearer after the design work is done.

“There’ll be a design phase, a community outreach discussion as part of the design phase, and then the implementation,” said Ellsworth.

Johnson said it is possible that some of the street parking along A Street, which provides spaces for customers and employees of the many downtown businesses along the strand, will be eliminated. She said that however the project takes shape, she wants it to have “the least negative impact on downtown Rainier” and mark an improvement from the current situation.

At a Port of St. Helens public meeting last year in Deer Island, railroad executives, port commissioners, Johnson and Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole were among those who noted concerns about the A Street alignment.

It was at that meeting that a Massachusetts-based energy company provided new impetus for the project to move forward. Executives from Global Partners LP said they want to invest as much as $70 million in improvements, upgrades and expanded operations at the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie, a major destination for freight traffic along the Portland and Western Railroad.

The Port Commission ultimately approved Global’s application to increase the number of trains allowed on the Port Westward rail lead, with a further increase pending completion of Global’s rail improvements at the site. But several people speaking at the Deer Island meeting said they want to see the situation in Rainier addressed right away, especially if the number of trains through the city is going to increase.

Johnson said at the meeting that “the money is there” to get the Rainier project done, and she reiterated her confidence Dec. 20.

“We’ve been talking about it ever since I’ve been in the Legislature,” Johnson said. “But in the first time in my history of trying to fix the Rainier rail crossing, I see all of the moving parts aligning.”

Ellsworth and McKinley agreed.

“You’ve got the right people in the right positions and some resources coming to the table that are going to allow it to happen,” said McKinley.

McKinley concluded, “It’s going to be a good process. We’re just way early in the process right now.”

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