Bonner County calls for public review of bridge proposal

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SANDPOINT - Bonner County commissioners are calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to require a public review of a proposal to construct a new BNSF Railway bridge across Lake Pend Oreille.

"We want to make sure that the citizens of the county get a chance and get an input at a public hearing on this issue," commission Chairman Cary Kelly said on Tuesday.

Kelly said the board was prompted to request that the corps subject the proposal to public review in light of fast-track procedures that can be utilized to hasten construction of a new span.

BNSF Railway officials said last year that it was considering the construction of a second bridge between Sandpoint and Sagle to alleviate bottleneck conditions on the 109-year-old railroad bridge east of the U.S. Highway 95 Long Bridge.

BNSF Railway's High Line route and a Montana Rail Link route converge at the existing bridge. There are double-tracked stretches of railroad leading to the bridge, which has only one set of tracks.

More than 50 trains pass through Sandpoint every 24 hours and BNSF anticipates reaching record volumes ahead of schedule.

A companion bridge composed of steel piling and concrete spans could be installed as soon as 2018, although BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said an exact construction date remains a moving target.

The commission's letter to Lt. Col. Timothy Vail, commander of the corps' Walla Walla District, acknowledges the rich history and culture of railroads in Bonner County in addition to their importance to the regional and national economy.

"That said, railroad traffic is growing dramatically and the nature of that traffic is changing," commissioners said in the letter. "Instead of mixed freight cars carrying a variety of goods, we are seeing a dramatic increase in lengthy trains that carry volatile substances and block traffic, creating multiple concerns for our community."

Resident Gary Payton applauded commissioners' insistence on public involvement if a new span is going to be constructed.

"It is important, as this item comes before the city and comes before the county, that a full and open hearing be made available so that all citizens who have issues and concerns about the impact of a second bridge can be heard," Payton said.

Increased rail traffic has become an issue of growing prominence in Bonner County as coal export trains and trains carrying volatile crude oil increase.

Some contend the increased rail traffic poses a threat to public safety and Lake Pend Oreille, while others counter that those concerns are overblown.

"Public discussion and debate about this would be a great opportunity for education," said Commissioner Glen Bailey.

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