North Portland Industrial Park Considered 'Choke Point,'
by Sara DiNatale
It's 8 a.m. on a Monday, and business owner Keith Lee can't get out of his driveway.
For up to four hours a day, Lee can see trucks and cars lined up along the street outside his company, Chin's Import Export. Trucks block the wholesale food vendor's exit and entrance for chunks of time throughout the workday.
They're stuck at a train crossing in North Portland's Rivergate Industrial District.
Portland's largest industrial park is fueling economic growth. But as the amount of exports such as grain and minerals going through the park climbs, so do traffic backups caused by trains. Leaders at the city and the Port of Portland, which owns the business district, recognize the problem and even have a proposed solution. But it's a $14.2 million project, and $5.7 million of that has yet to be found.
"I picked this location for its transportation infrastructure," Lee said. "Well, I was wrong."
Freight trains, trucks and ships all maneuver around the 2,800-acre district, which sits where the Willamette and Columbia rivers meet. Trains pose an obstacle for trucks, which pose a problem for business owners such as Lee. Traffic can halt from 10 minutes up to several hours as trains occupy the crossing outside of Lee's business on North Rivergate Boulevard.
Lee's business and neighboring Del Monte Fresh Produce sit closest to the crossing.
"Half our day is practically dead," Lee said.
Kathryn Williams, the Port of Portland's business and rail affairs manager, described the crossing on North Rivergate Boulevard as a "choke point" for rail and vehicular traffic. Up to 10,000 vehicles may pass through the district per day, and up to 100 businesses may have their access limited during blockages, according to a grant application by the Port, city and Metro officials.
Just across the tracks, Lee has a new neighbor: a waste management site that cleans out portable toilets. A little further is Evraz, a steel processing plant.
Although a waste spillage, industrial accident or explosion is unlikely, Lee worries about what could happen.
"If there is an accident ... I don't think fire trucks can get onto my property," he said. The Port says emergency access is a priority, and trucks or cars would have to move if blocking driveways during a crisis.
Lee says the buildups have been a steady problem since he moved his business to the industrial park five-and-half years ago. Trucks making illegal U-turns to escape the wait at the train crossing have taken out Lee's fire hydrants and lampposts. A truck once hit Del Monte's sprinkler system hydrant, causing 175,000 gallons of water to spill.
In response to the damage, the Port put up signage and striping to warn against blocking Lee's driveway. Crews will do the same for Del Monte.
Growing big business
Union Pacific, one of the two rail companies that pass through the Rivergate crossing, has seen a seasonal increase in grains exports over the last several weeks, according to spokesman Aaron Hunt.
Many of the trains that travel through the crossing come from Rivergate's Terminal 5. That location houses Columbia Grain, a leading grain exporter, and Canpotex, which distributes potash, a potassium compound most often used in fertilizer.
The two companies plan to eventually more than double the tonnage they export -- from 7 million to 13 million tons annually -- and invest at least $70 million in expansions, according the grant application.
Other businesses in the industrial park are also expanding, so rail use "appears to be growing," said Josh Thomas, the Port's spokesman.
The freight trains that come in district pass through the crossing and into the terminal at 10 miles an hour, which halts traffic. The train lines, which can be 100 to 112 cars long, don't fit entirely into the terminal's loop. While freight cars are being unloaded, the tails of some trains remain idle at the crossing, blocking cars and trucks.
The line of blocked vehicles can extend up to two miles on connecting North Lombard Street.
"I've seen 20 to 30 cars just waiting because the train is just sitting there," said Carl Peters, an operations manager for Recology Oregon Material Recovery, another business in Rivergate.
He said his drivers have "learned the dance" to avoid the blockages, as have others. There's one alternate route vehicles can use to get around the blockages, but it's a privately owned street. North Rivergate Boulevard is the only public access road to get to the south end of the district.
There is no way for drivers or tenants to know when blockages may happen, because the railroad companies don't have set schedules to share.
"It's not like Amtrak," Williams said.
Looking for solutions
Spokespeople from BNSF and Union Pacific said the rail companies understand the importance of mobility within the district, have been in communication with the Port and businesses and support the city and the Port's proposed answer: A new overpass that would allow cars and trucks to travel above the railroad tracks.
As the park's businesses have grown, so has its infrastructure. This isn't the first time the park has needed to put in a new overpass to accommodate for the growing needs of its expanding businesses.
So far, the Port and city hasn't won the grant they're depending on to pay for the new overpass.
This year, they're competing against 797 other applicants -- 212 more than last year -- for what's known as a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant.
Port and city officials also have suggested installing a network of warning signs that would tie into the rail crossing and notify drivers of a current blockage before they reach the problem area. Union Pacific supports that idea.
The project would cost $500,000, said Robert Hillier, freight planning coordinator for Portland's Bureau of Transportation. Hillier said officials are waiting to see if they win the TIGER grant before pursuing the sign system as an interim solution.
The proposed overpass would sit directly in front of Chin's; Lee worries it will lower his property value. He'd rather see rail regulations limiting blockage times.
Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, said the railway has an internal policy that blockages at road crossings shouldn't last more than 10 minutes, but there are exceptions.
That sort of guideline used to be state law but was repealed in 2009.
"We do wish that we had that authority," said Rick Shankle, a crossing safety section manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation. "At least when the statute was there, there was something we could do."
ODOT still fields some calls from people irritated or concerned about railroad crossing-caused traffic jams, but state regulators mostly just help facilitate conversation between the rail companies.
Lee has a collection of videos and photos on his iPad of damaged property, trucks making illegal turns and extensive traffic jams. His business has a history that stretches back to his grandfather. He's been the head of Chin's for 35 years. He's spoken to the rail companies. He's had conversations with the Port's bigger businesses. He's worried about the future.
"If I had my choice and I was a Fortune 500 company, I'd move out," he said.
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