Q: What is the law governing buses (both public and school) and tanker trucks stopping at railroad crossings? — James H., Northeast Tacoma
A: As a resident of Northeast Tacoma, James spends a lot of time driving along state Route 509, also known as Marine View Drive in some stretches, through the industrialized Tideflats area of town.
Here is what he’s observed:
“I see buses stop at the spur crossings by Schnitzer Steel and Manke Lumber but drive right through the spur crossing that serves the rail yard next to Alexander Avenue.
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“Tanker trucks, mostly gasoline, never stop at any crossings that I can recall, even the ones with ‘Stops at All Railroad Crossings’ emblazoned on the rear.”
The WAC citing deals strictly with school buses, requiring them to stop at all rail grade crossings except in five circumstances.
Those exceptions include subsection (d), which states a bus can avoid stopping at a rail grade crossing “where the Utilities and Transportation Commission has approved the installation of an ‘exempt’ sign.”
That exemption addresses James’ concern about the spur track near the Progress Rail Services yard near state Route 509 and Alexander Avenue.
Last year, the state deemed that crossing as “exempt,” meaning school buses no longer need to stop there.
The move was made to avoid rear-end collisions on that stretch of state Route 509, where as many as 22,000 cars a day fly through at freeway speeds (except during the afternoon rush when they crawl through at about 10 miles per hour.)
“Our buses no longer stop there,” said Dan Voelpel, spokesman for Tacoma Public Schools. “They do stop at other crossings in the Tideflats.”
Pierce Transit buses are required to stop at rail grade crossings, save those exempted by the state, Rebecca Japhet, that agency’s spokeswoman, told us.
The law states that private buses or motor coaches with “a manufacturer’s seating capacity for eight or more passengers, including the driver, that transports passengers for hire” must stop at such crossings.
Why must they stop?
To listen for approaching trains, of course.
Here’s what the WAC says as regards to school buses:
“The school bus driver shall open the door and driver window to listen for approaching trains. Drivers shall take reasonable action to ensure that passengers are quiet and shall turn off all noise-making devices such as fans and radios while listening for approaching trains.”
Yeah, good luck with that if you’re transporting a gaggle of elementary school kids.
One other interesting note from the WAC: “Drivers shall not change gears of a school bus equipped with a manual transmission while the school bus is crossing a rail grade.”
The tanker truck question is a bit trickier to answer.
RCW 46.61.350 does requiring a stop for “a commercial motor vehicle transporting … a cargo tank, whether loaded or empty, used for transporting any hazardous material as defined in the hazardous materials regulations of the United States Department of Transportation.”
By our reading, gasoline would be one of those, but heaven knows we aren’t experts on the matter.