Kent gets extension to find funds for railroad-street separation projects

A rendering of a proposed underpass at the Union Pacific railroad tracks along South 228th Street. - COURTESY GRAPHIC, City of Kent
A rendering of a proposed underpass at the Union Pacific railroad tracks along South 228th Street.
— image credit: COURTESY GRAPHIC, City of Kent

A state board gave the city of Kent until November to come up with a funding package to help build more overpasses or underpasses in town to separate train and vehicle traffic.

The state Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board (FMSIB) voted at its meeting last Friday in Vancouver to give Kent until November before the board might take back the $13.2 million in grants approved to help construct railroad grade separation projects along South 212th and 228th streets.

City Councilman Dennis Higgins told the board before its vote about Kent's proposal to form a local improvement district (LID) that would charge property owners an additional fee to help pay for the street projects. The board wants to know the city will kick in funding or it has threatened to take the grant money away and award it to projects in other cities that have funding.

The estimated costs for a grade separation along South 212th Street at the Union Pacific (UP) tracks is $27 million while the South 228th Street project at the UP tracks would cost about $25 million, said Tim LaPorte, city public works director.

The board has set aside a $3.25 million grant for the South 228th Street project and another $10 million for grade separations along South 212th Street at the UP and BNSF tracks.

"Relief," Higgins said about getting the deferral. "It's $20 million between the three projects. The $13.2 million from the FMSIB but the other grants would go away, too.

"It was a $20 million day for the city of Kent. I'm pretty pleased."

The council still has to approve forming a LID for property owners near the streets who would benefit from the improvements. The city wants the railroad grade separations to improve traffic flow and eliminate vehicles having to wait for trains at the crossings. Traffic is delayed anywhere from 90 minutes to more than two hours per day waiting for trains at the crossings, according to city staff.

"We are doing what we need to do to keep those projects alive," Higgins said.

The city needs to raise through the LID and other grants about $16 million for 212th and $8.4 million for 228th.

The council must approve a LID funding package by October in order to meet the freight mobility board's time frame. The city also will need more funding help from the state and federal governments in order to get the projects built.

"We have several things percolating for getting the projects funded," Higgins said. "It's a chicken and egg type of thing. To put the full funding package together we are still going to need help from the state and hopefully from the federal government as well. We deserve help from the state and the feds to implement the projects because they are regional projects.

"We are talking about the fourth biggest industrial manufacturing district in the nation and we're talking about something that benefits the entire region. Kent has waited its turn on those regional projects. We supported Auburn on M Street and Tukwila on 180th Street and all that happened right  before the recession and then when it was Kent's turn they all go away because of the recession, especially the federal government."

City staff research shows the commercial property owners would benefit from the railroad grade separations, Higgins said. The street serves the city's industrial area.

"The property owners would receive a return on their investment within two years for the level of LID we're talking about," Higgins. "Hopefully, it's something the chamber (of commerce) and the property owners will support as they have with other LIDs in the past. The payment turns on other LIDs in the valley are coming to an end so property owners won't be burdened by having multiple LIDs on top of each other."

A state transportation funding package that would include the Kent projects could help get the overpasses or underpasses built. If the projects are fully funded, it would take about two years to build a railroad grade separation by constructing a street either over or under the tracks.

"We're showing our good faith to the entire region and we expect our regional partners to show us the same good faith," Higgins said. "By that I'm specifically looking toward the state Legislature. Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn) and state Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) have heard from me repeatedly on this issue and they're going to be hearing more from us."

Higgins said Fain and Sullivan have been supportive, but need to help persuade the full Legislature to pass a major transportation package.

City staff also is trying to get federal grants and BNSF railroad funds to help pay for railroad grade separations as a safety measure against the proposed increased number of coal and oil trains expected to run through the city over the next decade.

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