A closed-off Union Pacific railroad crossing in Fife that has long divided the city is now one of the city’s most divisive topics.
The intersection of the rail line with 54th Avenue East was closed in 1999 as a result of an agreement between the Fife School District and City Hall. The road now dead-ends on the north side of the tracks near Dacca Park and Columbia Junior High School.
The area is inaccessible to both foot and car traffic. Barriers were erected in 2003 to improve safety near the soon-to-be-built sports park and school, funded by a school bond measure approved by voters in 2000.
Now, increased growth on the south side of the barriers has left residents and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians frustrated with a physical disconnection and their own safety hazards.
The tribe opened a youth and community center on North Levee Road last month, and housing developments, such as the Radiance and Saddle Creek communities, were built several years after the crossing was closed. The area's housing developments have about 4,200 residents, nearly half of Fife’s population.
Representatives for both the youth center and the neighborhoods have said the closure is not only an access issue to the other side of Fife, but also a safety concern in the event of an emergency or natural disaster.
Fife City Council member Glenn Hull said there was very little development south of the tracks when the city blocked the crossing.
Now, he said, the closure interferes with a vital thoroughfare not only for the city of Fife, but also for the Port of Tacoma and surrounding communities including Puyallup.
The railroad, coupled with the Interstate-5 span that cuts through Fife, separates the city into three segments. The blocked crossing further complicates travel for commuters.
To navigate around the 54th Avenue barrier, traffic must detour a couple miles out of the way, said City Manager Dave Zabell.
Radiance residents and the Puyallup Tribal Council have written letters to officials about their concerns, and the city is paying attention.
Officials say the argument isn’t about opening the crossing; it’s about when and how to do it.
The intent was never to keep the crossing closed forever, Zabell said.
The challenge now is how to honor the city’s agreement with the School District.
“That is part of what the public process is about,” Zabell said. “There’s no apparent magic bullet.”
The Puyallup Tribal Council contends that safety concerns near the school are overblown. Tribal officials say there are many crossings near populated areas, and trains at the 54th Avenue crossing travel at very low speeds.
County figures show that open at-grade railroad crossings near schools are not uncommon.
Out of the 177 crossings in Pierce County, 21 are within a quarter of a mile of a school, according to county Public Works data. Seventeen schools in Pierce County are within a quarter mile of an at-grade crossing, the data show.
Brenda Edgington, president of the Radiance homeowners association, said residents moved into the development expecting the road eventually would reopen.
She said the negative impact of the closure was apparent during flood evacuations in 2009. Residents didn’t know the city had temporarily opened 54th and they crowded the only other evacuation route.
“It was a nightmare,” Edgington said.
Emergency response times are likely hurting, too, she said. Responders can quickly make it to her single-family neighborhood of about 700 homes during off-peak travel times, but getting to the scene during rush hour would take too long, she said.
“If somebody has a heart attack or a stroke, that’s a life,” she said.
Hull said city staff has discussed how to reopen the crossing for about two years.
Another agreement between Fife and the School District in 2005 — around the time Radiance was built — outlined conditions necessary to reopen the crossing, specifically building an underpass.
“The district has never taken a position that the road could never be open,” said Charles Leitch, the School District’s attorney. “The road needs to be reopened the way it was discussed originally.”
Raquel Espinoza, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said public safety always improves when a grade crossing is closed, and separated grade crossings further improve safety.
Fife officials are discussing long-range transportation goals such as better connectivity.
At a July 23 public hearing, a standing-room-only crowd attended to speak about the 54th Avenue crossing.
“This was the highest-attended meeting we’ve ever had,” Hull said. “We found an issue that divides us, literally, as a community.”
After the overwhelming turnout and clear concern from the public, Zabell said 54th Avenue jumped up the street improvement priority list.
Hull said the priority still isn't high enough. Several other costly projects remain ahead of the crossing, which will cost roughly $15 million for a grade-separated underpass.
“If it really is a high priority, then let’s get this thing done,” Hull said. “We’ve got the potential here to address one of our top priorities, which is connecting our city.”
City staff is compiling more information to bring to the City Council on Aug. 13, Zabell said. That will include data on emergency response times south of the closure.
Edgington, who has two children, said she’s pleased with the response from the city so far and is cautiously optimistic about a solution.
“This issue is pretty important to our neighborhood,” she said.