The Port of Benton wants to evict Tri-City Railroad Co. from its 16-mile network of tracks, saying it breached its contract by failing to maintain the line.
The move could offer the city of Richland a fresh shot at extending Center Parkway across the tracks behind Columbia Center mall.
The railroad opposes the extension, saying the at-grade crossing would harm its business.
In August, the port notified the federal Surface Transportation Board it will submit a petition to discontinue rail service by Tri-City Railroad, its tenant.
If the federal board agrees, the port will evict the railroad under Washington law.
The port initially notified the railroad it was in default in March. It reaffirmed the notice Friday by certified letter.
The railroad line in question was built in 1947 to connect the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the main rail lines in Kennewick. The government turned the network of track and other assets in the 1100 Area, including 768 acres and 26 buildings, over to the port on Oct. 1, 1998.
The port in turn leased it to what is now Tri-City Railroad in 2002. The lease requires the railroad to maintain the 11 miles of main track and roughly five miles of sidings and spurs.
Scott Keller, the port’s executive director, said the track was in Class 3 condition at the time of the lease, a federal standard that sets a 45 mph limit on traffic.
It has deteriorated to the lowest standard allowed, with a 10-mph limit, with some stretches restricted to 5 mph. In its current condition, the line can’t accommodate hazardous materials or passenger service, although the latter isn’t an issue.
Further deterioration could lead to a shutdown.
“We cannot allow it to be taken out of service,” said Keller, who said the railroad has refused repeated requests for maintenance records, including 11 requests in the past year.
The standoff came to a head early last year after the port received a $2 million state grant to repair a railroad bridge near the Richland Fred Meyer.
It awarded a contract in late March. In May, workers began pulling up rails and ties to make the repairs. The railroad ties splintered.
Troubled, the port hired inspectors to X-ray all 43,437 ties. The results were alarming: 2,443 had failed, 10,000 were near failure and 19,000 would fail within seven years.
In September, it demanded an action plan to repair the system.
The Federal Railroad Administration inspected the line on May 15 and issued a civil violation for defects it found on the Yakima River Bridge. It gave the railroad 30 days to correct the situation. It extended the deadline because of delays in receiving new railroad ties.
The railroad then notified users the bridge would be closed for 72 hours for repairs. But when the port pressed it for a safety plan and confirmation it had the correct permits to work on the river, the railroad allegedly put the project on hold.
Federal inspectors are due back in October.
Keller said most if not all major users have complained: Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway, Preferred Freezer Services and Lamb Weston.
Lamb Weston ships $1 million of french fries daily from its manufacturing facilities near the Richland Airport, recently expanded to the tune of $200 million. Preferred is expanding its already-enormous cold-storage plant.
“We need to make sure that rail stays open for economic development in north Richland or a lot of people are going to suffer financially,” he said.
Tri-City Railroad is a short-line operator that in general hauls cars a short distance to spots where they can be switched over to long-haul carriers.
Union Pacific and BNSF both have terminated their relationships.
Both have the right to use the entire port-owned system and have said they will serve customers on the line.
The latest battle is occurring against a long-running battle over Richland’s desire to extend a street across a key section of the tracks near Columbia Center.
Richland and Kennewick both want to extend Center Parkway across the tracks to Tapteal Drive, a move that would improve traffic and development in the area bordered by Gage Boulevard and Tapteal, and Steptoe Street and Center Parkway.
The extension would cross Richland Junction, a critical stretch from the railroad’s standpoint. The section includes the main track and a siding. The railroad used it to switch out rail cars.
The extension, it said, would impede operations and it has battled the city in multiple venues, including state and appeals courts and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
In a separate legal action filed in June 2017, Tri-City Railroad and owner Randy Peterson say they’re the injured parties.
The federal whistleblower suit was filed in U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington on June 5, shortly after the bridge repairs revealed the damaged ties.
The case is assigned to Judge Thomas O. Rice. It is sealed and not available to the public. A copy of an amended complaint dated April 2, 2018, was shared with the Herald.
The port declined to discuss the case other than to confirm the Department of Justice has reviewed the case and declined to take it on.
In the 480-page document, Tri-City Railroad alleges the city and port actively worked to undermine its relationships with the long-haul railroads and that it was forced to move its switching activities from the Richland Junction to UP-owned facilities in downtown Kennewick in 2011.
The added cost had climbed to $1.4 million by December, when it was forced to lay off employees.
Defendants include the Port of Benton, Keller and commissioners, the city of Richland and its public works director.
The city declined to comment on the case.