Leaders raise concerns about rail line

Traffic, noise and safety concerns raised by Johnson County communities and other cities along a 106-mile rail line were dismissed in a federal review, but those local leaders are making a second attempt to be heard.

Louisville & Indiana Railroad wants to upgrade its line, which runs east of U.S. 31 through Greenwood, Whiteland, Franklin and Edinburgh. The project would allow freight company CSX Corp. to run more, heavier and longer trains at faster speeds between Indianapolis and Kentucky.

Several counties, cities, towns, local emergency responders and businesses expressed concerns about the effect of more trains to the federal office, including safety at crossings, traffic backups and noise. The communities want the railroad company to be required to put up new crossing arms on city streets, install sound barriers near residential areas and erect fences near pedestrian crossings if the project is approved.

Most of the requests that were made were dismissed in the report, which stated local governments didn’t justify their requests. The report was completed by the Office of Environmental Analysis, which studies the proposal submitted by the company and the impact of the project, and then provides recommendations and sets requirements to protect the environment including land, water and communities. That information is then given to the federal Surface Transportation Board, which is responsible for deciding whether to approve or deny the overall project.

The environmental report rejected most of the upgrades requested by the communities and didn’t require the railroad company to build them. Louisville & Indiana Railroad President John Goldman said the company isn’t responsible for conducting studies or paying to make additional improvements that aren’t required by the federal office and wouldn’t pay for them. The railroad company would work with any communities willing to do those projects on their own.

Mayors from Franklin, Greenwood, Columbus and Seymour will meet to discuss the decision and ways to appeal it. That could include contacting the Surface Transportation Board and writing U.S. senators and representatives, Gov. Mike Pence and state lawmakers.

“We’re hoping to get the message out there and garner support and really shed light on how important this decision is, that some of our citizens and lawmakers know and really want to stay out ahead of this. Just because we were denied the first time doesn’t mean we’re going to roll over,” Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness said.

Who’s responsible?

One major sticking point is who is supposed to justify more safety features being needed at crossings and who pays for the work. Louisville & Indiana Railroad says local governments and the state are required to do the traffic studies to see what’s needed and then pay for the cost to install new signals. But local officials don’t think they should have to pay for new lights or crossing arms, because they wouldn’t be needed if the railroad weren’t creating more of a safety hazard by running faster trains through communities more often.

If local leaders want to make their case to the federal Surface Transportation Board, they’ll need to act quickly. The environmental report was one of the last steps before the federal board makes its decision whether to approve the project. Attorneys from the railroad expect the federal office could OK the project by the end of the month, Goldman said.

The dismissal of the safety concerns raised by local leaders who submitted letters as part of the environmental review was a slap in the face, McGuinness and Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers said.

The report stated that communities didn’t justify why additional safety features or noise-reducing barriers were needed and shifted responsibility of determining that to the state, not the railroad company.

“The type of equipment at any given at-grade crossing (whether it’s a stop sign, cross bucks, automatic flashing lights or automatic gates) is determined by the applicable state department of transportation, not the railroad. (The Office of Environmental Analysis) adds that the commenter does not provide a basis for mandating that all Franklin crossings be outfitted with automatic flashers, bells and gates,” the report said in response to McGuinness’ concerns.

The railroad company says it’s not responsible for studying or paying for upgrades requested by local governments.

“It’s not up to the railroads to make that determination. It’s something that’s up to the local communities, local governments and state to make a case,” Goldman said.

Mitigating hazards

McGuinness said he doesn’t know what type of justification was needed to convince the environmental office. The fact that 10 to 15 additional trains would run through residential areas of Franklin at speeds up to 35 mph faster should show why they have safety concerns, McGuinness said. For example, only two of the city’s nine crossings have crossing arms and some, such as Earlywood Drive, don’t have flashing lights.

The report said safety improvements weren’t justified because none of the crossings had accident rates of more than one every 20 years. Accidents will be more likely if there are more trains that are moving faster, Myers said. High-traffic crossings, such as at County Line Road and Main Street in Greenwood, have flashing lights, but no crossing arms to prevent people from trying to speed across the tracks when a train is coming.

The cities shouldn’t be responsible for justifying or paying, since the railroad company is creating the hazard with its project, Myers said. For example, as Greenwood widens Worthsville Road to four lanes, the city had to pay to widen the railroad crossing because Greenwood is doing the project, he said. Or when Walmart submitted plans to build a store on State Road 135, the city required the company to pay for medians on Smith Valley Road and State Road 135 to help with traffic issues the new store would create.

“They’re the ones that want to increase their business. They should be the ones who pay,” Myers said.

Goldman disagreed that the rail upgrade would create new safety hazards in communities. The railroad will be required to post signs at any crossing where faster trains are running before they begin operating, and the railroad would have trains gradually increase their speeds over a period of weeks so drivers could get used to it, Goldman said.

In some areas, trains may not run any faster than they do now, he said, but no plans have been developed to determine what cities or towns might be in that category.

Mayors express concerns

Most accidents occur at lower speeds, Goldman said. Faster trains wouldn’t equate to more accidents, he said.

“It’s a live track, and it always has been; but most incidents when it comes to car versus train come at speeds lower than 20 mph. And it’s due to people thinking they can make it across the track,” Goldman said.

Local mayors are getting support from Columbus and Seymour officials, who also have concerns about how the increase in train traffic will endanger and delay drivers, as well as affect emergency responders such as firefighters and ambulances.

Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown said the concerns she submitted to the Surface Transportation Board essentially were ignored, just as Franklin and Greenwood’s were. The group of mayors could petition the Surface Transportation Board to reconsider, directly appeal to the federal office or even file a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals, she said.

Seymour Mayor Craig Luedeman also didn’t get enough reassurance that the project wouldn’t snarl local traffic. Seymour is bisected by the railroad. Although the environmental report recommends having the railroad install cameras that will allow the hospital, ambulance service and fire department to monitor the tracks, it didn’t address how to prevent traffic snarls when trains block U.S. 50 in the middle of the city. Building an overpass south of the city could cost about $30 million,

Luedeman said.

The environmental report does state that the railroad company should coordinate with the Indiana Department of Transportation and other agencies to discuss crossing upgrades and abide by any rules. But the state doesn’t have control over railroad crossings and can’t require railroads to make any improvements, INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said.

The state does offer grants to help communities pay for railroad upgrades, but it can’t tell the railroad company to put up new crossing arms and pay for them in a specific community, Wingfield said. Even on projects on state highways, the state needs to get permission from the railroad to install safety features or widen a crossing and has to pay for it, he said.

“In general, rail traffic is interstate commerce and regulated by the federal level,” Wingfield said.

Second effort

Local leaders will make a second attempt to pitch requests for more railroad crossing safety features, noise barriers for neighborhoods and other items to a federal board considering a major railroad upgrade. The improvements to the 106-mile Louisville & Indiana Railroad would lead to more trains, heavier trains and faster trains traveling through the county.

Here’s what’s next:

Getting support: Mayors from Greenwood, Franklin, Columbus and Seymour will meet to discuss issues with the railroad proposal.

Appealing: The mayors are considering ideas such as petitioning or appealing to the federal Surface Transportation Board, contacting the state’s U.S. senators and representatives, writing Gov. Mike Pence and building support with state lawmakers. The group also could file a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Deciding: The environmental report that rejected the cities’ requests was one of the final reports needed before the railroad project is approved by the Surface Transportation Board. That decision is expected around the end of the month, so local leaders will need to act quickly.