Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007
County, cities seek meeting with railroad
By SUE WATSON
What was just a spark at the board of supervisors’ meeting October 1 is growing into a flame.
Marshall County is teaming up with the municipalities and local legislative delegation to try to get the Mississippi Department of Transportation and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to do something about trains blocking the roads in Byhalia and Potts Camp.
Monday of this week, the Marshall County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution inviting representatives of BSNF to schedule and attend a joint meeting with the officials from the county, the City of Holly Springs, the Town of Byhalia, the Town of Potts Camp and all of the county’s legislative delegation. The purpose of the joint meeting is to discuss public health and safety issues which are caused by the railroad blocking the crossings through Marshall County. The resolution requests the meeting be conducted within 60 days.
Sheriff Kenny Dickerson warned supervisors October 1 of safety problems that could arise due to trains stopping on the road crossings for as long as an hour or more in Potts Camp and Byhalia. A flurry of discussion followed.
Supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett opened another discussion October 8 in the board room, saying the railroad crossing at Potts Camp was blocked by trains a couple of times for an hour each.
“Ambulances have to cut around,” he said. “What I’m concerned about is that something be done about it. The problem with the trains is long-standing and MDOT has done nothing to help.”
Mayor Jimmie Collins of Potts Camp said what used to be a 15-minute wait for trains to move out of the way has been extended.
“They move up (a little) and the time starts again,” he said.
“They don’t move 10 feet,” said Bennett.
Collins said Potts Camp is growing and most of its emergency service workers and firefighters live on the north side of the track.
“If they need ambulance service in Bethlehem, nobody can warn them (ambulance workers) the tracks are blocked,” he said. “Fire and ambulance are my biggest worry.”
Collins and Bennett said their phones begin to ring at 6:30 in the morning with complaints.
Citizens think Collins and Bennett are responsible for doing something, Collins said.
Supervisor Willie Flemon asked if there was not a law requiring trains to separate some rail cars and pull up out of the way.
“Nothing to my knowledge,” state representative Tommy Woods said.
Collins said trains used to have brakemen who rode the engine and got out to disconnect cars. Now most trains don’t have a caboose for the brakemen either, he said.
The engineer, he said, is not going to get off the train to disconnect cars.
“They don’t make enough money to do that,” he said.
Bennett said at Potts Camp there are often two trains sitting on the side tracks and one on the main track.
“It’s got to where it’s all day long,” he said. “It used to be once in a while. I understand the (train) traffic, but they (BNSF) have to understand they have to work with us.”
State representative Kelvin Buck said the issue seemed to be the law should require trains to break to let the traffic go through.
Both Collins and Bennett said they were told by railroad officials that traffic would be increasing on the tracks and they could write tickets to engineers who blocked a crossing too long. Collins said at one time he had walked to the engine to voice a complaint.
Woods suggested calling Bill Minor, Mississippi Department of Transportation commissioner.
“They (MDOT) are supposed to be able to take care of it,” he said.
He added there is a two- or three-mile side track at Myrtle.
“Do they use that?” Woods asked.
“All the side tracks are full,” said Bennett.
Woods said traffic was backed up to the four-lane in Byhalia because of a train recently.
“They stop at Edwards Road and sit on the track by my house,” he said.
“That’s why I’m late (to the board meeting),” said supervisor Keith Taylor.
“It’s the same problem we have at Potts Camp - having to drive around (the train), but we have to come back around on gravel roads,” said Bennett.
Woods suggested Commissioner Minor get MDOT’s railroad division’s attention on the problem.
“We could pass 100 laws, but it wouldn’t do any good because it’s federal for the most part.
Bill Renick, executive director of the Industrial Development Authority, said both short-term and long-term solutions should be sought. The long-term solution would be overpasses, but short-term could involve pressing the railroad to put brakemen back on the trains, he said.
Renick suggested the boards of the municipalities and the board of supervisors all pass resolutions calling for MDOT and BNSF to join in a meeting to find a solution.
He said the overpasses would take awhile to build.
Supervisor George Zinn III said the statutes requiring trains to move frequently at crossings is on the books.
“It seems to me it’s just a question of enforcing it,” he said.
Buck said there is law but penalties are not stiff enough.
“No bite,” said Kent Smith, board attorney. “But the railroads have all the preemptions because it’s federal law. We would have to go to federal court to try to make them comply.
“The board came to you guys in Jackson (the local delegation), not to put it on your back, but we felt like we needed y’all’s input and direction as to where to go.”
State representative Jack Gadd said the local delegation could also support the resolutions of the county and municipalities.
Bennett said he was asked by a previous district engineer with MDOT how many fatalities had taken place when MDOT was approached for the overpasses.
“That made me feel like some of our kids and grandkids are going to have to die first,” he said. “I can’t see that and my family does live across the railroad tracks. We’ve got to have somewhere to start to get something done. It’s not just the inconvenience to people out there. It’s going to be a tragedy, if someone is killed.”
Renick suggested quick steps to get a resolution from the governmental bodies stating there is an emergency situation with the tracks being blocked and also requesting a face-to-face meeting with commissioner Minor and the district engineer.
Buck stressed that short-term the blocking of the tracks is a safety issue, but long-term it is an economic development issue.
“I think we should say that (in the resolutions),” he said.
“You hit the nail on the head,” said county administrator Larry Hall. “That’s the key to getting the money to do the overpasses. The preliminaries are being done now for the long-term solutions.”
Woods offered to make telephone contacts with BNSF officials to see what could be done to “alleviate part of the problem.”
“The key is getting BNSF guys to show up (to a meeting),” said Renick. “The rest of these guys will.”
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