By Bruce Kelly
SANDPOINT, Idaho — Construction has begun on BNSF Railway’s nearly mile-long bridge across Lake Pend Oreille on the outskirts of Sandpoint, Idaho. The new span will parallel an existing 4,769-foot long bridge that represents one of the last bottlenecks on the 69-mile route between Sandpoint and Spokane, Wash.
Grading for the approaches to the new bridge started in September 2019. Temporary work trestles were erected on both sides of the lake during April 2020 to facilitate the deployment of barges for placement of pilings and footings in advance of the actual rail bridge. As of late July, the first set of pilings had been driven into place. BNSF expects work to continue year-round (weather permitting), but no official target date for completion has been announced.
Two smaller bridges within the city of Sandpoint, one across the mouth of Sand Creek and the other across Bridge Street, are also part of the $100 million project. Once finished, the three bridges will allow BNSF to install just over two miles of second main track between Sandpoint Jct., (where BNSF and Montana Rail Link converge) and East Algoma, which lies across the lake from Sandpoint and marks the beginning of 52 miles of continuous two main tracks to the outskirts of Spokane at Otis Orchards, Wash.
That will leave the Spokane-Sandpoint “Funnel” with just over four miles of single track remaining, between Otis Orchards and Irvin, which BNSF will eventually double with the construction of a second bridge over the Spokane River. Grade work for that project has already begun.
Back at Sandpoint, as soon as the second bridge over Lake Pend Oreille is in service, BNSF intends to resume improvements to the bridge it currently uses. During 2008-2009, BNSF replaced 28 concrete piers with steel piers and installed new steel and concrete deck panels at both ends of the existing bridge. Those concrete piers had stood since the bridge’s completion in 1904 by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The 1904 bridge replaced a wooden trestle that had carried NP’s original 1880s main line across the lake. The main body of Lake Pend Oreille is more than 1,100 feet deep, but where BNSF crosses it the water depth averages no more than 20 feet.
This doubling of bridges on Lake Pend Oreille comes half a century after the creation of Burlington Northern Railroad, a merger that led to the downgrading of the former Great Northern main line between Sandpoint and Spokane and the channeling of traffic onto the former NP. The resulting corridor has frequently lived up to its nickname “The Funnel” with periods of acute congestion, especially during the autumn surge of export grain and import and domestic intermodal.