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Crossing changes costing property owners for land access

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Morgantown resident Lee Smith had maintained the railroad crossing on his land for 50 years but the Indiana Rail Road Company recently removed the crossing and asked Smith for a large fee to rebuild and maintain the crossing. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Morgantown resident Lee Smith had maintained the railroad crossing on his land for 50 years but the Indiana Rail Road Company recently removed the crossing and asked Smith for a large fee to rebuild and maintain the crossing. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Railroad tracks separate a Brown County man from his 23 acres of wooded land, and if he wants to get to them, he has to agree to pay $2,500 or build a new way to get to the property himself.

Earlier this year, Lee Smith, who lives near Morgantown on the Johnson County line, found a sign on his property telling him the crossing on the Indiana Rail Road Co. line was being ripped out as part of upgrades to the track.

A letter told him he needed to pay $5,000 to upgrade his private crossing, start paying an annual $500 maintenance fee and take out $6 million in insurance on upgrades at the spot where he’s allowed to drive across the tracks.

Property owners in Johnson County also got the letters from the railroad company, which is upgrading its tracks that cross the west side of Johnson County. Three out of the six Johnson County property owners declined to comment due to ongoing negotiations with the railroad company, and others could not be reached.

Private crossings

What they are: Private railroad crossings are sections of track on private properties that have been modified so the owners of the surrounding land can cross the railroad.

How many: Johnson County has seven functional private railroad crossings on the Indiana Rail Road Co. line, which crosses the county between Indianapolis and Morgantown.

Where they are: Four are near Trafalgar and three are near Bargersville. Six of them are on farmland and one is in an industrial area.

The railroad company upgraded its tracks across the county this spring so it could run trains at 40 mph instead of 30 mph through the county, company officials said. Updating or eliminating the crossings mainly used to access farmland separated by the railroad was part of the planned track improvements.

Smith is in the process of negotiating an agreement with the company, but in the meantime, the crossing to his 23 acres of property has been ripped out.

Smith’s crossing, built from gravel and wood, made the incline at the tracks less steep, so vehicles such as farm tractors could drive over them. The crossing was the only way for Smith to drive to his land on the other side of the tracks.

Smith rejected the company’s order to pay for and insure his crossing. He told an Indiana Rail Road representative that he’d maintained the crossing for 50 years, so he would only consider paying the company for maintenance if they retroactively paid him for what he’d done, he said.

The railroad company owns the tracks and the strip of land they’re on, so Smith’s insurance agent told him he couldn’t insure a crossing that wasn’t on his property, he said.

Smith also turned down the company’s counter offer, which dropped the maintenance and insurance requirements and asked him to pay half the costs of building a new crossing, or $2,500. He has not heard back from the Indiana Rail Road Co. since.

By state law, Smith can build a new crossing himself at the tracks so he can access his land, but he’s worried that he’ll do the work and then have the crossing torn out again or be held responsible by the railroad company if his homemade crossing isn’t up to the company’s standards, he said.

“I’m just kind of waiting to see what their next move is,” he said.

The Indiana Rail Road Co. is trying to work out deals with owners of land with crossings in Johnson County and believes that having them pay $2,500, or about 50 percent of the cost of replacing the gravel crossings with asphalt, is a good deal, company spokesman Eric Powell said.

“We’re trying to be good neighbors, but also just not bend over backwards, either,” he said. “We don’t get any benefit out of this, except our neighbors get to cross the tracks.”

The combines and tractors farmers use to get across the tracks can also damage the rails, he said.

The company didn’t charge Fred Bullman for his new farm crossing, Bullman said. Bullman lives on his family’s farm just south of Bargersville, and spotted the yellow sign in early March at his property’s railroad crossing.

The Indiana Rail Road Co. often sends its workers across Bullman’s property to get to the tracks for repairs, Bullman said. He called and asked the company not to leave his crossing out of their upgrade plans, and was able to convince officials that access to the west side of his property was important.

Reminding a company representative that the Indiana Rail Road Co. uses his driveway to get to the tracks for repair work strengthened his case, he said.

His wife’s family has owned the land at least since building a log cabin there in 1823. The railroad was built in 1913, cutting 85 acres off from the rest of the property. The house Bullman and his wife built in 1964 and currently live in replaced the log cabin, he said.

A farmer rents most of the acreage across the tracks for growing row crops.

“We have to have the crossing there,” Bullman said.

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