The Fife City Council has hired a design firm to ponder different routes for a pedestrian bridge that would cross the railroad tracks, but all the options will be expensive and still not solve the lack of vehicle routes between Fife’s business and recreation core and residents on the eastside.
The council was set to adopt a $98,000 contract with Berger ABAM to prepare designs of a pedestrian bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad that would run between 5‐Acre Park and the southeast corner of the Columbia Junior High School. That contract jumped to $198,000 by the end of the lengthy Oct. 27 council meeting because council members wanted more detailed looks and cost projections of other possible routes.
"The basic issue we have in Fife is that we are cut up by a number of things," Public Works Director Russ Blount said, noting that Interstate 5 is one and the railroad is the other.
The only ways to cross from the south side of Fife to the rest of the city are at Frank Albert Road, 70th Avenue and Freeman Road, since the 54th Avenue railroad crossing remains blocked with an emergency-vehicle-only gate.
The crossing was blocked by a fence as part of an agreement in the 1990s between the City of Fife and the Fife School District that led to the construction of Columbia Junior High School, which sits near the crossing. The growth of homes and businesses on the south side of the tracks, however, has brought many people in the neighborhood to call for it to be opened to car traffic. A crossing in the area – either for walkers or cars – is needed since students who live on the south side of the tracks are simply ignoring the fence that blocks the tracks, creating an unsafe environment. Students have dug under, climbed over or simply cut through the fence to cross the tracks.
Rough estimates put the cost of a vehicle underpass at the 54th Avenue crossing at $24 million and couldn’t include a pedestrian walkway because of the lack of right of way and design restrictions. A pedestrian-only tunnel at 54th Avenue would cost about $10 million. That leaves the city looking at ways to fund and construct an $8 million to $12 million pedestrian bridge elsewhere, while also pondering options to pay for an underpass for cars.
The seemingly “simple” solution of reopening the at-grade street crossing at 54th Avenue is far from it, because of the agreement between the city and school district and oversight of railroad crossings themselves. The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, which oversees railroad crossings, and the Union Pacific Railroad have deemed an at-grade crossing unsafe and not up to current design requirements. The current crossing is technically open, albeit blocked with a gate that is only accessible by first responders. The city had filed plans to open the at-grade crossing in 2009 only to withdraw the application after railroad and state regulators voiced their concerns. The railroad has since been given the greenlight by state officials to build a siding track in the area that will extend through the 54th Avenue crossing and mean more train cars will flow over the tracks. That makes an at-grade crossing even less likely because of safety concerns.
That prompted the city to look at ideas for an over or underpass before settling on an underpass at 54th Avenue as the best option. The building of an underpass would likely take years and still not include access for walkers or bike riders, so the city began pondering pedestrian bridge routes as a way to get a crossing sooner rather than later. A pedestrian bridge could open in 2017 and be paid for through bonds, partnerships and grants if the council makes the bridge a priority.
“There will be ways to find money," Blount said. “We have looked at these for a number of years."
City staffers have looked at crossing the tracks with a pedestrian bridge at Destination Avenue East, 5-Acre Park to Columbia or Brookville Park over the years, only to be redirected to new options or other ideas by previous City Councils.
Councilmember Lew Wolfrom pointed out yet another wrinkle in the bridge options. The idea of a bridge is to provide a safe route for students and their families to cross the railroad tracks on their way to school or to recreational activities at Dacca Park. But the bridge would end at a part of the Radiance Development that lies in the Puyallup School District. Students in the houses in that section of the planned community don’t attend Columbia. The students who do live in homes closer to 54th Avenue would likely continue to just trespass over the tracks than add 200 feet to their trip by using a bridge located on the other side of the neighborhood.
"People's lives depend on this," Councilmember Bryan Yambe said. “We have to do this thoughtfully and carefully, and at the end of the day I think, we are. We need to do this."
But the city has spent a lot of time and money to ponder options only to continue to spend more money and time looking at other options, he said.
Other councilmembers voiced similar frustrations.
Outgoing councilmember Barry Johnson noted that he has advocated for a new crossing – either an over or underpass for more than a decade – and the city is still years away from either.
“We have been going nowhere, and at the rate we are going, we will continue to go nowhere," he said. “I think it needs to be made a priority."
Councilmember Pat Hulcey said the reason for the delays of either a car or pedestrian crossing rests with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which the city would like to help pay for the project, since the south side of Fife contains the Tribe’s youth and community center and business properties that would benefit from a safe crossing.
"The hang up on that thing has been the Tribe," he said. “It is time for them to step up and be part of the community. I am just really, really frustrated with the Tribe at this point.”
The Fife Free Press reached out the Tribe for their side of the story on this issue. Tribal Councilmember Marguerite Edwards said the Tribe initiated the conversation with the Fife City Council to reopen 54th Avenue and met with various Fife City Council members and their staff over a period of a few years, even bringing in Congressman Denny Heck to attempt to facilitate the discussion when it became clear that the discussions had stalled.
“Fife, however, was not interested in a discussion,” Edwards said. “It was their way or nothing. We acknowledged the futility of further talks when the Fife Council started passing resolutions to spend millions of the Tribe’s dollars on 54th without any discussion with the Tribe. Can you imagine the Tribe committing millions of Fife's dollars to a project without any discussion? It became absurd. They were inflexible and unwilling to work for mutual goals.”
Edward said the Tribe had architectural renderings drawn and offered to pay for an at-grade crossing with all the safety bells and whistles, but that Fife Council rejected this outright. These funds would be in addition to the $1.5 million a year the Tribe gives Fife in impact fees and taxes.
“Let me be crystal clear: The Tribe has a youth center and property on the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ We considered housing, a grocery store and retail shopping there if 54th were to open. We genuinely want to improve the lives of Fife citizens. We have great concern for our tribal members and the Fife residents on the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ Safety in the event of a natural disaster for those citizens is not assured because they are cut off from the rest of Fife, emergency services or safe evacuation routes. The residents continue to reside in harm’s way and that remains a grave concern.”
Edwards pointed out that added to the safety of the residents is the growing traffic congestion in Fife. For example, the Puyallup Avenue Bridge is scheduled to close for repairs in 2016, which will create considerably more traffic crush.
“Opening 54th Avenue just makes sense, though we have been unable to get the Fife City Council to see that,” she said.
The design team will now explore routing options for a pedestrian bridge, which the council is set to ponder at a retreat after the new year. Community meetings would then come in later winter or early spring, followed by more specific design work once a route is selected.