(Lake Crystal, Minnesota – July 24, 2012)
While railroad public project engineers continue to play the age-old, job-security, delay games, claiming it takes 12 to 24 months to approve, design, order and install improvements to public grade crossing safety devices, occasionally there arises a hero displaying extraordinary superior common sense. The latter description would fit Blue Earth County, MN County Engineer Al Forsberg perfectly.
Forsberg took it upon himself to lobby the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation to not only force the expedition of the installation of gates at the notorious, deadly crossing of Blue Earth County Road 112 (515 Avenue) and Union Pacific Railroad tracks, but also to initiate a program to get the State of Minnesota to spend $36 million over the next eight years to fund crossing gates and flashing lights at every rail crossing in the state on a paved county highway.
The catalyst for Forsberg’s campaign was a July 13, 2009 tragedy in which two Blue Earth County employees, Todd Ziegler and Jack Baker, tragically died when the county dump truck they were operating was struck by a Union Pacific freight train at the dangerous, unguarded crossing.
The state DOT then placed the crossing on a schedule to receive gates and lights by 2016. While on the waitlist for gates and lights, another accident at the UPRR/CR 112 crossing occurred last month. The accident seriously injured William Henry Epper of Nicollet, MN.
County Engineer Forsberg was objective. “What if someone gets killed out there waiting for 2016 to come?” he asked. “That’s about as passionate as you will see me on any one issue,” he added.
Attorneys for the Ziegler family, who included Scott Kelly of Farrish Johnson Law and Bob Pottroff of Pottroff Law obtained a settlement against Union Pacific in May, offering evidence which proved the occupants of the truck could never have heard the locomotive’s horn over the noise the dump truck made as it sprayed roadside ditches for mosquito control.
In a 2000 submission to the Federal Railroad Administration, Bob Pottroff proposed that all roadways that were paved (concrete or asphalt) should also have all railroad crossings thereupon upgraded with lights and gates. A year later, former railroad executive Harvey Levine joined in the recommendation with his own submission.
Through Forsberg’s efforts, Blue Earth County agreed to a method called “advance funding” in which the county funds the $250,000 cost of upgrading the crossing now, and then is reimbursed when the federal funds are received, in this case, 2016. The MDOT plan for statewide crossing upgrade on all paved roads would utilize the same method.
“How can you say no to that railroad project?” asked Blue Earth County Commissioner Kip Bruender. Minnesota and specifically Blue Earth County, is paving the way for all other states and counties to follow in the simple policy that if the road has been improved for higher traffic volumes, then so too should the railroad crossing on the roadway be uniformly improved with lights and gates.