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54th Avenue crossing remains a divider between city, tribe

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The Fife City Council and Puyallup Tribe remain at odds over the best way to reopen a railroad crossing along 54th Avenue that was closed in 1999, following an agreement in 1997 between the city and the Fife School District that led to the construction of Columbia Junior High School.
The settlement required landscaping and other features to be added. That landscaping was never completed, so the state and the railroad consider the crossing technically still open. The guard arms and lights still flash when a train comes along the tracks some 16 times a day, but the tracks themselves are blocked to pedestrian traffic by a chain link fence. Since the crossing is treated on state and railroad ledgers as being open, a state review to remove the fence that blocks the crossing is not required.
But this is where the complicated issues gets downright surreal. Union Pacific railroad officials have acknowledged they have no authority to block the city from removing the fence and allowing traffic to flow over the 54th Avenue crossing. But UP argues that safety improvements, such as sidewalks, would be needed to meet current safety standards. The addition of a sidewalk or other safety improvements, however, would trigger a crossing change review by Washington Utilities and Transportation. UP is on record as saying the railroad would then oppose the addition of sidewalks as a way to keep cars from crossing the tracks at a crossing that is technically open.
The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to design underpasses and overpasses at the crossing, options that would cost between $2 million for an at-grade opening with a sidewalk to upward of $50 million for the construction of a two-lane underpass alongside a pedestrian walkway, separated bike lane and roundabouts at Radiance Boulevard and David Court.
The at-grade crossing is the least expensive and seemingly most logical, but having an at-grade crossing would violate the city’s agreement with the school district, which worries about student safety at the crossing as well as the possibility of a derailment caused by a car-versus-train accident at the crossing. An accident there could result in rail cars being derailed onto the junior high school grounds. The at-grade option would also face tough challenges from the railroad and the Washington State Utility and Transportation Commission. The Union Pacific Railroad has had plans on its project lists for decades to add a second track in the area to stage train cars but has not acted on those plans.
The crossing has divided Fife geographically ever since it was fenced off and has become increasingly important to cross-city traffic because the former prairie and farmland has now been developed into planned communities, businesses and community services. One of those additions is the Puyallup tribe’s youth center. 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 growth of homes and businesses on the south side of the tracks has brought many tribal and nontribal people in the neighborhood to call for it to be opened to car traffic. The city had filed plans to open the at-grade crossing in 2009 only to withdraw the application after railroad and state regulators first 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 surrounding derailments.
That stumbling block prompted the city to look at ideas for an over or underpass before settling on an underpass at 54th Avenue as the best option at a cost of about $24 million. 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 be paid for through bonds, partnerships and grants if the city, school and tribe could agree on a plan.
“To resolve issues of mutual interest you have to start talking,” City Manager Subir Mukerjee said. “That is an issue we need to work on.”
Members of the Fife City Council and the Puyallup Tribal Council are planning to meet sometime in March to discuss a host of issues, including 54th Avenue crossing options.
“Several years ago, the tribe did develop a plan to open 54th which met all safety concerns and used tribal dollars,” stated in a letter from Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud to Fife Mayor Winston Marsh. “However, that plan was summarily dismissed. Although we are skeptical any plan other than at grade is economically feasible, in the spirit of cooperation we agree to study in more depth the city’s options for opening 54th Avenue.”
None of these arguments are new to Mike Kelley. He had many of them a decade ago when he served on the Fife City Council that included a stint as mayor between 2000 and 2008, and worked on an earlier deal to open the roadway. He said any change to the roadway would have to involve the city, the school district and the tribe because of the many uses and interests in the area. It also has to please the railroad since it owns the land and has its own level of rules and safety procedures.
“Without them being part of the program, nothing is going to happen,” he said.
The railroad, for example, owns most of the land of nearby Dacca Park, land the city leases until some of it is sliced off for construction of the second set of tracks. That is why the city, school district and tribe agreed to build a soccer field at Surprise Lake Middle School rather than Dacca Park, since a field there would have ended any hope of an underpass, which Kelley believes is the best alternative.
“The underpass, at least to me, is the only way to go,” he said, noting that not everyone on the council or area residents back then agreed with him, so it didn’t become a priority. “Once I got off the council, no one really followed up. Nothing ever happened. Nobody has a vision. So here we are still talking about it. Even if the tribe didn’t want it open, it needs to be open just to keep traffic going.”
One plan to solve the traffic issues in the area involved the tribe building a bypass road from Frank Albert Road to 54th Avenue. Talks about that roadway, however, quickly fizzled, adding yet another wrinkle to a convoluted history of the road opening controversy, something all sides could continue to argue over or agree to move forward.
“We are where we are, and the only way I see that opening is if the railroad was a partner and the school district was a partner and the city was a partner and the tribe was a partner,” Kelley said.

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