The cities of Richland and Kennewick will be able to finish the last 800 feet of new road needed to connect Center Parkway and Tapteal Drive.
That means drivers would be able to travel from the traffic circle at Gage Boulevard near P.F. Chang's and Olive Garden north to businesses near Kohl's department store.
Commissioners with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission recently reversed an earlier decision and decided a broad enough public need existed for Center Parkway to cross two rail lines.
"It's a very happy day to have that decision because both cities have desired to have that piece of road completed for well over a decade, close to 15 years now," said Pete Rogalsky, Richland's public works director. "This is a huge step forward in making it happen."
An administrative law judge with the commission denied the proposal in February.
But the cities appealed to the three-member commission, arguing in court documents that the Center Parkway extension would improve failing emergency response times, relieve traffic congestion, reduce traffic accidents, promote economic development and complete a long-planned regional transportation network.
It's a needed network because Kennewick is expected to grow by 56 percent by 2030, while Richland's population is expected to expand by 68 percent, according court documents.
The commissioners said they agreed with an administrative law judge's opinion that the benefits to public safety were too slight on their own to require the crossing, according to court documents.
But the commissioners decided other reasons made extending the road over the rail lines necessary.
"The Center Parkway extension, including the proposed at-grade railroad crossing, is a long-planned and important component of the cities' transportation system," the commissioners concluded in court documents. "The project will improve traffic movement between two important and growing commercial areas in Richland and Kennewick, thus promoting economic development."
The final decision by the commission can be appealed to the commissioners who made the decision, or the commission could be taken to court over the decision.
But the Tri-City Railroad Co., which leases the two Port of Benton-owned rail lines the road would have to cross, has not decided if it will appeal the decision, said Paul Petit, the company's general counsel.
The railroad had argued that the cities failed to show a public need that was enough to outweigh the inherent risk posed by at-grade crossings.
The risks of an at-grade crossing are relatively low, the commissioners said in their decision.
"When they looked at the full picture, it was worth it," Rogalsky said. "The risks of accidents are more than made up for by all those other benefits."
The area near Center Parkway is prime property, close to Columbia Center mall and visible from Highway 240, said Carl Adrian, Tri-City Development Council's president and CEO. But it has been landlocked and hard for some to figure out how to get there.
"I think it is going to be a boon to the businesses that are already down there and I think it will open up that area for further development," Adrian said.
This is the second time Kennewick and Richland have pushed to connect Center Parkway to Tapteal Drive.
The commission previously denied a crossing for the project about seven years ago. But since then, the cities resolved issues with Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. and made the project simpler.
BNSF agreed it no longer needed that area of tracks to drop off and pick up rail cars and Union Pacific agreed the cities could remove the two tracks it owned where the crossing would go in 2011.
Richland and Kennewick paid Union Pacific $2.1 million to buy property for the road to be built on and to reimburse the company for building a replacement elsewhere. The tracks have not been removed yet.
But Rogalsky said they may be removed soon. Richland will soon bid a project to extend rail needed for a new ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston cold storage warehouse, and likely will hire the same contractor to remove the tracks. Some of the materials may be reused in the city's other project.
Now, Rogalsky said Richland will begin to buy the property rights needed to build the road. That process could take a year, he said.
Richland has about $2.6 million available to buy property, finish building the road and install warning devices, gates, lights and bells where the road would cross the tracks. The vast majority of that money is from state and local grants.
In addition to the 800 feet of new road, Richland will need to finish another portion of Center Parkway that was built by a developer but needs a finishing layer of asphalt.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org