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Railroads Seek Crossing Closure Despite Public Outcry

(Granite City, Illinois and Logansport, Indiana – May 10, 2012)

Wasn’t it 19th Century railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt who coined the phrase “The Public Be Damned”? His attitude is alive and well in the Midwest as railroad entities utilize threats, bribes and diversion to close railroad crossings of heavily-used public roadways, thus denying easier –or sometimes any – access by residents and commercial concerns to get to homes, businesses, schools and other necessary destinations.

In western Indiana, the Winamac Southern Railroad – one of several short lines operated by Toledo, OH-based short line railroad operator and rail transportation services-provider U.S. Rail Corporation — is petitioning Cass County to close two county road/railroad crossings through the Indiana Dept. of Transportation, even though INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley says his agency is “not involved in the talks between the rail entity and the county.”

Yet, Cass County Highway Dept. Supt. Jeff Smith says “Nothing has been determined on whether or not we’ll move on these requests, but it’s not uncommon to get a suggestion from INDOT to look at crossings.” The two road crossings the rail entities want eliminated are those of 650 South and 1100 South.

And the railroad reasoning is simple. Smith acknowledges that “The railroad has about two trains per day and, by closing the roads and removing the pavement, it lessens the rail company’s liability for accidents.”

Moving to the Illinois side of the Greater St. Louis area, the railroad tactics are more aggressive, and the public’s opposition far more obstinate – and for good reason.

The Union Pacific Railroad is pressuring Granite City, IL authorities to shut down the crossing of UPRR subsidiary Alton & Southern Railroad tracks and Morrison Road, effectively closing the road, in Madison County. UPRR has indicated its planned increase in train traffic on the A&S line will “cause long delays for motorists.”

“They – the railroad have said there are going to be (train) cars blocking that crossing for sometimes hours upon hours,” said Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer after a meeting he had with railroad officials.

One UPRR official, Tom Lange, verified the railroad’s intention, warning that “The more trains travel on those tracks, the longer motorists will have to wait at the crossing.”

But Union Pacific’s hierarchy, through Omaha, Ne-based Public Relations Manager Mark Davis, claimed that the crossing closing “is not a Union Pacific decision. This decision rests with the community.”

The railroad already asked Mayor Hagnauer what it would cost them to close the road, and Joe Juneau & Associates, Granite City’s contract engineering firm, developed a $7.75 million “wish list” of projects the city would like UPRR to fund. It is unlikely however Granite City will get many, if any cash incentives in return for crossing closure. That’s because Union Pacific can completely bypass the city’s approval, and go instead to the Illinois Commerce Commission and petition the agency for a hearing before an administrative law judge, who could order the road to be closed, an action which would negate any possibility of incentive payments from the railroad to the city.

The whole scenario worsens as residents and politicians become verbal. Helen M. Hawkins of Granite City, who represents District 16 on the Madison County Board, says that “It might seem like a small area, but thousands of people use that road,” estimating that the affected area has more than 1,000 residents occupying 430 homes. She also estimated 1,000 residents signed a petition against the closure.

Mitchell Fire Chief and Chouteau Township Supervisor Eddie Lee points out “That’s (Morrison Road) the only access to that area without going five miles out of the way.”

While more affected residents chime in with their opposition, Pontoon Beach Trustee Kelly Staley says “This would be a horrible thing to happen to some of our residents.”

It looks like Granite City will have to simply continue to be “railroaded” by Union Pacific.