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Traffic delays of up to 2 hours reported at some Spokane-area train crossings

Many Spokane residents probably know the pain of getting stuck at a train crossing and, with more people moving to the region, the backups are only getting longer.

SPOKANE, Wash — As the Spokane area continues to grow, traffic is steadily increasing and there's one headache for drivers that probably isn't going away any time soon.

Many residents probably know the pain of getting stuck at a train crossing and, with more people moving to the region, the backups are only getting longer.

Recent data shows the delays drivers face at train crossings in the area can stretch anywhere from a few minutes to two hours. One area where drivers feel profound impacts is the intersection of Sprague Avenue and Freya Street. As trains roll through, drivers trying to go north or south are forced to sit and wait.

An estimated 58 trains use the rail line owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe every day. That number is expected to double to 114 trains by 2035, according to a recent study completed by the City of Spokane Valley

While there is work underway on a new overpass at Barker Road in Spokane Valley that’s expected to be completed in 2022, that’s just one crossing. There are many others throughout the Spokane area. 

It turns out trains are only supposed to block crossings for 10 minutes. Washington Administrative Code 480-62-220 states, "Railroad companies must not block a grade crossing for more than 10 consecutive minutes, if reasonably possible.”

But a spokesperson for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission said several federal court rulings prevent the agency from enforcing the regulation. Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration is the only government agency with authority to create rules addressing blocked crossings, the spokesperson said.

However, the Federal Railroad Administration said federal statutes or regulations regarding how long trains can highway-rail grade crossing, or those restricting train length, do not exist.

"...Railroads set their own timetables and operating schedules, which are based on market condition and business and may change over time without advance notice," a spokesperson for the administration said. 

However, several US senators introduced legislation late last year aimed at setting up a three-year pilot project for the Federal Railroad Authority to receive and maintain information about blocked crossings, such as the crossing at Sprague and Freya. 

A search of that database shows there have been more than 200 reports since December 2020 of a train blocking the road at Freya for anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. Drivers who want to report blocked train crossings can visit the US Department of Transportation website.

The blocked crossing at Sprague and Freya isn't just an annoyance to drivers either. Businesses are also feeling the impact — including Mudslinger's, a coffee stand near the intersection.

"I mean, it’s sat there for 40 minutes to an hour or longer sometimes, so usually we don’t really have a lot of customers at that time," said Alieah Watts, a barista at Mudslinger's. 

KREM 2 reached out to Union Pacific and BNSF to ask about traffic delays in Spokane. Union Pacific provided the following statement:

"Union Pacific understands the community’s concerns about blocked crossings from railroad operations in Spokane. From time to time, rail operations impede traffic in Spokane due to the configuration of the rail network and coordination with other rail operators to facilitate the movement of goods. We have had discussions with city transportation leadership to discuss potential ways to improve the situation and are committed to continuing those conversations. Our goal is to keep trains moving efficiently and safely."

This story is part of KREM 2's Boomtown Week. Watch stories about the impacts of growth in Spokane and North Idaho all week long through Friday, Nov. 12.

Watch more Boomtown coverage on the KREM 2 YouTube channel: