Regional mayors weigh options on improvement plan

For the Tribune

Traffic, noise and

safety concerns raised by city and communities along a 106-mile rail line were dismissed in a federal review.

Now leaders from some of those communities are making a second attempt to get heard.

That could include contacting the federal Surface Transportation Board and writing

U.S. senators and representatives, Gov. Mike Pence and state lawmakers.

Seymour Mayor Craig Luedeman will join mayors from Franklin, Greenwood and Columbus to discuss the review and ways to appeal it. That meeting had been scheduled for today but was postponed.

“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.

The project would allow freight company CSX Corp. to run more, heavier and longer trains at faster speeds from Indianapolis

to Kentucky.

Several counties, cities, towns, local emergency responders and businesses have expressed concerns about the effect of more trains to the federal

office, including safety at crossings, traffic backups and noise.

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 proposals submitted by the company and the impact of projects, and then provides recommendations and sets requirements to protect the environment including land, water and communities.

That information is then given to the 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 although it recommended the railroads install and maintain a video-monitoring system to provide real-time information on crossing conditions in Seymour to allow for alternate crossings to be used when warranted.

That’s because the review found the additional train traffic created by the project could have a

substantial impact on Jackson County Emergency Medical Services, the Seymour Fire Department and Schneck Medical Center.

Luedeman said he didn’t get enough reassurance that the project wouldn’t snarl local traffic.

Seymour is bisected by the railroad; and 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 could cost about $30 million, Luedeman said.

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. The railroad company would work with any communities willing to do those projects on their own, Goldman said.

If local leaders want to make their case to the 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 said they expect the federal office could approve the project by the end of the month, Goldman said.

Dennis Watson with the Surface Transportation Board said there is no timeline for a final decision.

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.

Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown also has expressed concerns about safety.

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 railroad company

said 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.

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 couldn’t tell the railroad company to put up 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 new safety features or widen a crossing and has to pay for it, Wingfield added.

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