Leader Blues

Saturday, September 05, 2009

TOP STORY >> City to start negotiations with railroad

Leader staff writer

The state Highway Department didn’t say no to Jacksonville’s request to put in a new at-grade railroad crossing at Graham Road, but it didn’t say yes either.

Instead, it has told the city to work it out with Union Pacific.

City Administrator Jim Durham said the city wrote to the Highway Department first because when he called to see what the procedure was to get the old crossing opened to traffic, Durham was told he needed the Highway Department’s approval first.

“They are telling us to go to the railroad, and that’s what we are going to do,” Durham said. The city plans to call railroad officials on Tuesday and invite them to a meeting in Jacksonville about the crossing as soon as possible.

The crossing was closed temporarily when the $3.2 million Main Street overpass was built in 2001, and then later permanently closed. Concrete traffic barriers line both the south and north sides of the old crossing.

Mayor Gary Fletcher, who believes that closing has greatly affected the economic growth of Sunnyside and the east side of Jacksonville, said that technically the crossing can’t be reopened.

“That’s a dead horse, but we can and have requested a new crossing be constructed in the exact same spot,” the mayor said.

Durham sent a letter in mid-August to Dan Flowers, the director of the state Highway Department, making the request.

In his letter, Durham says that the environmental assessment for the Main Street railroad grade separation, dated May 8, 2000, gave the Graham Road crossing a hazard rating of 17.63 on a scale of zero to 100, with 100 the most hazardous.

Durham told Flowers in the letter that about one-third of the city’s population lives east of the railroad. “The City of Jacksonville believes a new at-grade crossing to be in the best interest of these residents and vital to the economic redevelopment of Graham Road and the surrounding area,” Durham wrote.

The Highway Department responded in an Aug. 27 letter.

In the letter, Scott Bennett, assistant chief engineer for planning, wrote, “Reopening a crossing at this location would require negotiations between the city of Jacksonville and the railroad regarding the required easement and installation of new concrete- panel crossing surface and mast-mounted flashing lights and gates.”

Bennett went on to say, “The responsibility for the cost of this work would be determined during these negotiations. Typically, the costs of such improvements are borne by the entity requesting the crossing.”

The Highway Department forwarded a copy of the letter to Charlie Felkins with Union Pacific Railroad.

Jacksonville’s former Mayor Tommy Swaim has said that the railroad overpass was built to alleviate traffic concerns and improve safety. The $3.2 million bridge opened April 17, 2003.

“It was a dangerous intersection with trains ... there were accidents and some deaths,” Swaim said.

When the Main Street overpass opened to motorists, it was cited in a news story that the improvement would help ease the memory of a 1979 crash at that crossing that killed four teenagers.

The Jacksonville City Council approved an ordinance in 2001, which called for the closing of the Graham Road crossing once the Main Street overpass was built.