Railroad hearing sparks lively debate

August 16, 2013 10:36:53 AM

Nathan Gregory - [email protected]


The possibility of railroad crossing closures had South Columbus residents talking once again Thursday during a public hearing at the municipal complex. 


This time, they had the opportunity to voice their concerns to representatives from Kansas City Southern Railway, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and city officials. The first community meeting regarding the proposed closures was held Monday at a Ward 1 meeting hosted by Ward 1 councilman Gene Taylor. 


Similar to that meeting, a majority of comments were against barricading six crossings at Second, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, 10th and 17th streets, but the proposal also had several supporters this go-around.  


Before the citizens got their turn at the microphone, city engineer Kevin Stafford, KCS public safety director Allen Pepper and MDOT safety engineer Jim Willis made the case for the changes. Pepper explained that he receives capital funding to do specific projects such as the one proposed in Columbus. To update each of the six crossings that would remain open, it costs $40,000 for timber crossing upgrades and $250,000 for safety arms and flashers to block the crossings when a train is passing through, he said.  


"We look at this as a package plan. We found the place, we found the partners that are willing to work with us, and we're willing to fund the upgrades of the surfaces and the barricading of other crossings along with the flashers and gates MDOT is willing to put in," Pepper said. "We're talking all told somewhere in excess of $2 million in safety improvements for the city of Columbus." 


An average of eight trains come through the crossings per day, Pepper said, each currently having to blow their whistle a minimum of 15 seconds at all junctures. The upgrades, plus the city's installation of median barriers, would make the area eligible for designation as a Quiet Zone, meaning the drivers would no longer have to blow the horns. If the project is completed, KCS would maintain all of the gates and crossings, Pepper said.  


"In no certain terms will it keep a collision from occurring, but it is a high level of traffic control and hopefully it would help us avoid having collisions on any of those crossings in the future," Pepper said. "I've got dollars for this year. I have to spend these dollars this year for capital funding purposes. As soon as I can find out if this is a go or not, we'll start surface upgrades." 


Willis said MDOT's role was to make sure the crossings have warning devices that meet engineering standards. 


"Our other role in this...is to help facilitate discussions like this between communities, whether it be cities or counties, and the railroad companies, all for the common good of increasing the safety in the city, county or even on a state highway. MDOT is prepared to fund the upgrades of gates and flashers at each of the six crossings that will remain open if we can get the closures," Willis said. "There are about 2,200 public crossings in Mississippi. All of them have their own issues and all of them are equally deserving of your attention and your safety dollars...when you do upgrade here and you give one closure for that update, you're getting the net safety benefit of two safety improvements." 




Arguments for the closings  


A dozen citizens spoke during the citizens' comment period after Stafford, Pepper and Ellis spoke -- three for the closures and the rest opposed to them -- and roughly 80 citizens attended. Mayor Robert Smith asked near the end of the meeting for a show of hands in support of and against the proposal. Chief operations officer David Armstrong said he counted 16 hands in favor. A majority of the others in the crowd raised their hand in opposition. 


Still, Southside residents including Joseph Boggess spelled out their cases for the closures, citing the need for the Quiet Zones. Boggess noted past crossing closures and the financial benefit the city experienced as a result as well as the quality-of-life improvement Quiet Zones would bring. 


"I think it's fair to say there could be more trains in the future than what we have now. I'm speaking for the vast majority of my Southside neighbors in saying that the train noise has become a big issue with us," Boggess said. "We're aware that the safety upgrade would be certainly worthwhile, but the noise is certainly an important issue to us. We're delighted to hear the program will allow the city to be able to certify a Quiet Zone. We're not necessarily pro-closure of any particular streets, but it's just that we realize this is the number of streets that have been determined to be necessary to achieve the corridor to get quiet zone certification." 


State House representative Esther Harrison, who said she'd lived in Southside all her life, referenced a previous comment regarding speeding through the neighborhood. 


"As a teenager, I lived on the other side of the tracks. I finished high school at Hunt, and we walked down the tracks to Hunt. We have been trying for years to get some kind of safety crossing across the track. We never could, and it's been longer than 30 years ago that we've been trying," Harrison said. "Now we have a chance to get a little something done, because if we don't, it might be another 30 years before they can find the money."  


Evan Whitehouse, who lives two blocks up from the tracks, said though he learned more details about what the closures would mean during the meeting, his opinion didn't change and he believed Quiet Zones were worth navigating around closures.  


"I think it's really coming down to a choice of there isn't enough money to go around, so we can either do nothing and have a whole bunch of crossings in bad condition or we can say, 'All right, we can't sustain them all,'" Whitehouse said. "Choose the ones we can afford to maintain, we'll maintain those and the rest have to go...I know what it's like to go two or three blocks out of your way to get where you need to go. Ultimately, I think it's worth it." 




Arguments against closings 


Many of the cases against closing the crossings presented Monday were repeated Thursday, but the statistical argument against doing so was an exception. In the traffic impact study city engineering firm Neel-Schaffer conducted, the existing daily traffic on Fourth Street would go from 222 to 563, a 154-percent increase. On Fifth Street, there would be a 22 percent increase from 1,166 to 1,427. Traffic would increase 75 percent, from 736 to 1,288, at the Seventh Street crossing.  


Eleventh Street would see very little change, going from 3,589 to 3,674, a two percent change. On 15th Street, that number would change seven percent from 2,353 to 2,518. On 22nd Street, the amount of 733 would increase to 988, a 35 percent increase.  


The firm stated in its report that a combined net increase in traffic for the crossings staying open would be about five percent. The firm also stated the current projected combined traffic through the 12 crossings was 10,722 cars a day. Under the alternative being considered, if half the crossings are closed, that number would decrease to 10,458 going through six crossings every day.  


Mississippi University for Women mathematics professor Bonnie Oppenheimer disputed the calculations. 


"For the traffic that actually travels on the streets that are currently being considered to stay open, that's 8,799 cars. It will become 10,458 when the other streets are closed. That's actually a 19 percent increase," she said. "For the traffic that currently travels on all of the crossings to the traffic that will travel once those crossings are closed, there's about 300 cars that are missing. Have they decided to stay home? Where'd they go?" 


Helen Pridmore, who said drivers traveling at high speeds was more of a concern than the crossings, also mentioned loud music coming from cars that often is louder than the train horn. 


"I do hear the horn 99 percent of the time and I'm able to sleep through it. What I can't do is sit on my front porch and enjoy the afternoon because of all the cars coming down 11th Street with their music blaring so incredibly loud that it makes those train horns not even an issue," Pridmore said. "While you're going to get quiet, I'm going to get that increased traffic on 11th Street South and I don't understand how you can sacrifice one for the other. I think the horns are a small price to pay for other people to not have that increased traffic on their street. Seventh Street and 11th Street are already nightmares...How many accidents have we had at these crossings? I've lived here all my life, but I can never remember any wrecks at any of those crossings. 


"Want to know how many wrecks I've had at my corner since I've been living in my house seven years? These are the ones I know about because I've been home: 10 from people flying down my street," she added.  


When asked how many accidents had occurred on the tracks in question, officials could not officially provide an answer. Later in the meeting, Pepper said data showed that there had been 11 accidents involving the rail line in the past 20 years. 


Bessie Pruitt said the only accident she knew of was in the county portion of the railroad line. 


"I talked to my insurance company because someone mentioned this to me. If all these tracks are closed, our home insurance is going to go up. I was told closing all these tracks is like not having a fire extinguisher at your house," she said. "If you close six tracks, can you imagine the congestion you're going to have trying to get across when those trains are sitting on that track?" 


Andrea Sanders, an eight-year Southside resident, said the amount of traffic on Fifth Street is already a nuisance. 


"I just don't understand why we're using the issue of safety to benefit you when safety is something we should all have anyway. I don't know where the disconnect is between fighting over money or no one's asking for the money, but we certainly need to fix the safety issue. It should be completely independent of any other benefits that may arise out of this," Sanders said. "Safety is something that we're all entitled to. I really feel that you're using this whole thing about 'We're going to make this city safer and the only way we're going to do it is if you jump on this bandwagon right now before I lose all this money.' That's putting a carrot in front of us and saying ... 'Lo and behold, if there's anything that happens it'll be on our heads,' and that's just wrong." 


After more comments and questioning from citizens, Mayor Smith closed the hearing by informing the crowd that councilmen would take the matter under advisement in the future with the feedback gathered to be the main factor in whether or not to go forward with the proposed closings. 


An agenda released Thursday for Tuesday's council meeting does not list an discussion or action item related to the closings.

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.