Leader Blues

Monday, April 09, 2007

TOP STORY >>City votes to close crossing

IN SHORT: Despite voices of opposition, aldermen voted to abandon the right-of-way, which will allow trains to stop blowing their horns at abandoned street.

Leader staff writer

After 30 minutes of residents asking the city to take another look, to talk to railroad officials and to give the people on “the other side of the tracks” an option, the Jacksonville City Council turned a deaf ear and in three quick rounds of voting approved abandoning the right-of-way for the closed railroad crossing at Graham Road.

Only Alderman Terry Sansing voted against the abandonment.

If you vote against this ordinance,” Mayor Tommy Swaim said, “the next vote will be how to find money to pay back the cost of the overpass.”

Swaim explained that the city received more than $3 million in federal funding because the overpass was needed for safety and as part of the requirement to build the overpass, the Graham Road crossing had to be closed. “It was not your tax money, it was federal funds,” the mayor said.

Swaim said if the city opened the crossing up it could be asked to pay back the federal funds. “Our hands have been tied since the agreement was signed years ago,” he said.

Mayor Tommy Swaim said many residents in the area have complained about the whistles and the railroad has made an official request to close the crossing. However workers in businesses near the tracks rarely hear the trains blowing any whistles while going through the crossing.

None of the more than two dozen residents attending the council meeting supported the idea of abandoning the crossing, nor complained about the train whistles.

Many residents from the Graham Road area and the Sunnyside Addition asked the council to maintain the right-of-way and to even open the crossing back up.

“With the overpass, you’ve got to get around your elbow to get to your thumb,” said resident Jeannie Spivey.

“What we would like is an option,” said Celeste Williams, a 23-year military veteran who chose to retire in Jacksonville.

She said if the crossing were open people would use it instead of the overpass when the students are coming to or leaving Jacksonville Elementary, which is located right next to the overpass. “And if a train is coming, then we would use the overpass. We should be able to choose,” she said.

Spivey asked, “There were two crossings before, why can’t there be two now?”

The mayor said the crossings were too close and the railroad would not allow it because of safety. All the residents who spoke said they felt they were living on “the other side of the tracks.”

“We do feel like outcasts,” said Thomas Washington.

“We don’t matter anymore,” said Carol Calhoun. She and her husband own Calhoun’s electric and body repair shop on Graham Road within walking distance of the closed crossing. “We’ve been broken into three times, there’s graffiti on the walls, the Laundromat, fish market and store have all closed. It’s a dark hollow all because of the overpass,” Calhoun said.

One resident told the council, “I don’t think anyone can deny that this has had a negative impact on the neighborhood. Surely some federal, state or outside agency could come in and do an impact study.”

Alderman Gary Fletcher spoke of concerns, but still voted to approve the abandonment. “I’m surprised that I’ve seen no growth. It is a dark spot and the city needs to address it.”

Sansing, who has always voted against closing the crossing, agreed that drivers should have a choice of routes. “If we give up the right- of-way, we’ll probably never get it back. We’ll have taken away a choice, an option, for the future.”
“Don’t give away the future,” he told fellow aldermen.

In other council business:
n The aldermen set a public hearing for 7:10 p.m., April 19 to discuss a proposed multi-purpose improvement district for Legacy Center, a planned development by the Dupree family for their bean field lands between exit 6 and 8 off highway 67/167.

n The council approved changes to the city’s master land use map. The map is used to help commissioners determine if rezoning requests blend in with the long-range plans of the city. The map shows which areas of the city should be residential, commercial and industrial.

At their monthly meeting in March, commissioners voted to make West Main Street from Marshall Road to Shady Lane and land just to the north and south of Main Street a mixed development area of commercial and industrial. Currently the map shows the area strictly as industrial. “This will give us more flexibility and opportunity to develop the area,” explained City Engineer Jay Whisker.

A portion of Main Street in the downtown area is also a mixed development area, but of commercial and residential. “We did this to allow buildings to have businesses on the bottom floor or in front and residences upstairs or in the back,” Whisker said.

Commissioners voted to change a portion of land surrounding Swift Drive from industrial to commercial.