BNSF asks to close five Galesburg grade crossings

by Mike Kroll

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad wants to close five railroad crossings in the middle of Galesburg -- crossings used by thousands of motorists every day.

On June 29th, Cheryl Townlian, a project engineer with the BNSF, sent a letter to Mayor Bob Sheehan that began by acknowledging discussions regarding potential grade closings have already been going on between City staff and BNSF Roadmaster Duane Schoonover. ''As you are probably aware, the BNSF is taking a very active and aggressive role in eliminating a number of at-grade crossings, both public and private, throughout its system,'' Townlian states in her letter. ''Concern for the safety of its employees, as well as the traveling public, has always been a number one priority for the railroad, and our closure program is further proof of our efforts to reduce accidents.''

Two of the railroad's main lines cross through the city -- resulting in an abundance of grade crossings -- particularly along the former Santa Fe line. These crossings are not only a nuisance to drivers, they also create a significant liability for the railroad and are costly to maintain. These are undoubtedly among the reasons the BNSF has proposed closing five of them.

None of the five proposed crossings to be eliminated are obscure or little-used, despite assertions in Townlian's letter. They're all on the north side of town: West Street between Ferris and Water Streets; Cherry Street between Water and North Streets; Kellogg Street between Water and North Streets; North Street between Kellogg and Seminary Streets; and Whitesboro Street between Grove and North Streets.

Attempts to contact Townlian were unsuccessful. Another BNSF engineer with a passing familiarity to the Galesburg situation did acknowledge that such studies are being conducted throughout their track system. He was not able to discuss any of the specifics of this proposal.

The BNSF effort to eliminate grade crossings takes three forms: simply closing at-grade crossings -- forcing motorists and others to take alternative routes; constructing parallel connecting roads; or creating grade separations such as bridges or underpasses. Townlian's letter notes that both ''the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois Commerce Commission are very supportive of our safety efforts to eliminate grade crossings, even to the point of providing a certain amount of assistance to the local agencies in constructing grade separations, installing crossing warning systems, and upgrading existing systems; not to mention the upgrading of crossing surfaces.'' The letter also notes that the BNSF ''provides assistance to local agencies in accomplishing safety goals for the benefit of the traveling public.''

These two sentences are the only hint at the substantial cost of constructing bridges or underpasses and no dollar figures, even rough estimates, are included in either Townlian's letter or the accompanying engineering report.

The potential cost of constructing any overpasses has not escaped Galesburg Public Works Director Larry Cox. ''I'm not at all sure where the funding for such a project would come from although I would expect Federal and state assistance in addition to monies spent by the BNSF and the city. When we built the W.C. Jackson Bridge, the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) contributed 60 percent of that project's cost and additional monies came from a variety of other sources. I do know that I do not have budgeted public works monies for such massive projects at this time and do not anticipate doing so. I am positive that pursuing these recommendations would only come after fruitful negotiations between the City and the BNSF.''

If the BNSF recommendations are accepted by the Galesburg City Council, this would leave north-south crossings only at Academy, Broad, Prairie, Seminary, Chambers and Pearl Streets. Additionally, the BNSF recommendation is that both Prairie and Seminary Streets be turned into one-way streets between Main and Losey Streets. The BNSF plan calls for that section of Prairie Street to be southbound only and Seminary Street to be northbound.

''Through careful studying of the crossings in Galesburg, we noted several problem areas with the potential of future accidents. Minimizing as many railroad crossings as possible also minimizes the potential of train related accidents. Many of the crossings in the area have low vehicle traffic that can easily be relocated to nearby crossings. Several crossings, if closed, could eliminate the city maintenance of a public bridge and connecting road.'' (BNSF letter)

While there are low-use crossings in Galesburg, it is debatable whether they include those proposed for closure. The potential for accidents at these particular crossings is also disputable. Based on the BNSF's own engineering report that accompanied the letter, an average of 43 freight trains traverse the former Santa Fe main line daily through Galesburg and the average number of daily vehicle crossings in 1997 varied from a high of 1,950 (North Street) to a low of 600 (West Street). The report itself suggests that this data may need to be revisited. Kellogg, Cherry and Whitesboro are fairly used north-south streets with average daily traffic crossing the tracks of 1,850, 1,650 and 1,200 vehicles, respectively, according to the BNSF's own data. The data does not take into account that traffic may be diverting from some of these rough, poorly maintained crossings to less convenient ones.

''From the information presented by the BNSF so far I haven't seen any compelling reason to pursue these closures from a safety standpoint,'' noted Cox. ''There doesn't appear to be a whole lot of research evidenced in the study the BNSF sent to the City beyond some photographs and an inventory of pre-existing crossing inventory paperwork.''

None of these crossings seem especially notable in terms of accidents. Over the last five years there has been only a single accident at any of the five crossings. On April 2, 1999. a 40-year-old female pedestrian was hit and injured by a westbound freight train as she walked across the tracks at Cherry Street around 6:30am. Prior to that, the BNSF report notes three accidents at the North Street crossing and one at Kellogg Street since 1977. None of these accidents resulted in fatalities and the most recent involved an eastbound freight train striking an unoccupied stalled car on North Street on January 26, 1992.

In the near term, the BNSF would like to close all five of these crossings and suggests that city residents and travelers would hardly notice the change. Since the rail line parallels the Cedar Fork Creek through much of Galesburg, there would also be the potential savings of avoiding the need to replace the deteriorating bridges on Cherry, Kellogg and North Streets. The city has already replaced the bridges at Broad and Seminary Streets and has budgeted to replace the North Street one this year. Planning for the others is in process.

Cedar Fork is also a complicating factor because it precludes the less costly alternative of constructing underpasses. By Federal and state dictate, there must be 16 feet of clearance for newly constructed roadways but the required clearance over train tracks is between 23-25 feet. Therefore, construction of overpasses will require longer approaches and create many more problems for the adjacent homes and businesses. The Farnham Street overpass gives a representative sampling of what would be involved.

The engineering report also mentions a ''Long Term Plan for the placement of six highway overpasses and the closing of 14 grade crossings'' along the former Santa Fe tracks. Under this plan, the crossings at Maple, Prairie, Chambers and Pearl Streets would be closed and overpasses constructed on East and West Main, Academy, Broad, Seminary and Lincoln Streets. Neither cost estimates nor the neighborhood impact were explored in the study but the plan would essentially eliminate nearly all grade crossings on that rail line through Galesburg. It would leave grade crossings on South Henderson and McClure Streets as well as Linwood Road.

Cox isn't comfortable with the direction this proposal has taken so far. If it were left up to him, he would first determine exactly where the best locations for the overpasses might be before even beginning to consider the closing of grade crossings. ''Building the six overpasses would be expensive and somewhat complicated in minimizing the impact to nearby property owners. It's not even clear that the locations presented would best meet the City's needs without a lot more study. You will recall that the recently adopted comprehensive plan suggests rerouting that Santa Fe main line to avoid these crossing issues but such an option hasn't even been raised by the railroad. As costly as the overpasses might be, the necessary reroute could certainly end up even more expensive.''

At this point the subject hasn't yet been presented formally to the City Council for discussion. Council members received copies of the BNSF proposal with their first July meeting packet and the topic has yet to be scheduled on their agenda. Cox reports that City Manager Gary Goddard has directed him to look closely at the study and speak with representative of the BNSF and their engineers in preparation for a future written report to the Mayor and City Council.

At least three City Council members are adamantly opposed to the BNSF plan.

''I'm not too impressed with this study,'' noted Karen Lafferty. ''I can see that these closures save the BNSF the trouble and expense of maintaining five grade crossings in Galesburg but I just don't see how the citizens of this town would benefit. The railroad already seems to do a poor job of maintaining the road surfaces at their crossings and I just can't see how further inconveniencing the residents of Galesburg will enhance this community.''

Monte Gifford thinks the BNSF has put the cart before the horse, again. ''I'm opposed to this plan. We cannot accept the principle of closing crossings until we have agreed on at least one, and preferably two, overpasses. There is no paramount safety concern here. This is just a way for the railroad to save some money. I've got news for the BNSF; if they want us to sign off on this plan they had better first commit to the construction of the overpasses and find a way to fund the project themselves.''

''I think the proposal is totally ridiculous!'' asserted Tony Gerk, Fourth Ward Alderman. ''Just because the railroad doesn't want to pay for the upkeep of these crossings is not reason enough to justify these closings. I'd be much more impressed if the BNSF people came to us volunteering to help construct some badly needed over- and underpasses. Closing these crossings in particular will greatly inconvenience residents and visitors alike just to make life easier for the BNSF.''

No one mentioned the potential impact these closed crossings might have on emergency response times. As the number and size of freight trains routed along the BNSF mainlines have increased in recent years, so has the frequency and duration of traffic tie-ups along the streets they cross. There currently exists only one non-grade crossing north of Main Street, at Farnham Street. A long, slow freight train on the former Santa Fe line brings north-south traffic in central Galesburg to a virtual standstill. Until overpasses are built or the railroad is rerouted, that situation will only get worse.

part II

Last week's Zephyr reported on a proposal by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to close a total of five ''at-grade crossings'' along the former Santa Fe main line. These tracks run roughly east-west across Galesburg intersecting a multitude of north-south streets. With the sole exception of North Farnham Street (where there is an overpass) each of these rail-street intersections require warning lights, bells and gates to halt vehicle traffic when a train passes. Not only is this a traffic nuisance for both drivers and pedestrians, it also poses safety concerns and the crossings are costly for the railroad to maintain.

BNSF project engineer Cheryl Townlian penned a letter to Mayor Bob Sheehan on June 29th presenting the railroad's proposal along with an engineering study commissioned by the railroad. The BNSF is currently making similar presentations across their system in an ongoing effort to significantly reduce the number of grade crossings. In the letter, which the Mayor has had distributed to key city staff and the City Council, Townlian introduced the proposal: ''As you are probably aware, the BNSF is taking a very active and aggressive role in eliminating a number of at-grade crossings, both public and private, throughout its system. Concern for safety of its employees, as well as the traveling public, has always been a number one priority for the railroad, and our closure program is further proof of our efforts to reduce accidents.''

That may well be true in general but, by her own admission, safety concerns were not a factor in the proposal to Galesburg. During a telephone interview following last week's story, I asked Townlian how the crossings to be closed were selected. ''Typically, we primarily look for crossings with low vehicular traffic volume and high rail traffic or those which have had a history of accidents or pose a significant accident risk. But, this was not the case in Galesburg. Our data show that nearly all of these crossing carry a lot of vehicular traffic and have a pretty clean accident history.''

Townlian went on to explain that the crossings on North Cherry Street, North Kellogg Street, North Street, West Street and North Whitesboro Street were not even selected by herself or the consulting engineer. Instead, local BNSF Roadmaster Duane Schoonover selected these crossings with no concern over safety; they were chosen as Schoonover's best guess as to the most politically attractive to Galesburg city officials.

''Each of these crossings, except for Whitesboro, are adjacent to the drainage canal that runs through Galesburg and Schoonover felt that closing these specific crossing would actually help the city save the cost of replacing the deteriorating bridges,'' explained Townlian. Galesburg is in the process of planning for the replacement of the bridges over the Cedar Fork Creek at Cherry and Kellogg Streets. The city has already replaced the ones on Broad and Seminary Streets and replacement of the bridge along North Street is already budgeted. All of these WPA bridges were built about 65 years ago and need replacement at considerable expense.

Townlian was given the task of preparing the engineering report and proposal to city officials only after the grade crossings to be eliminated were selected. The BNSF's approach to this issue seems to clearly place its own financial savings and convenience well ahead of any safety concern -- at least in Galesburg. Furthermore, despite a recently completed $100,000 comprehensive plan that very publicly advocated the rerouting of the Santa Fe mainline around Galesburg, Townlian was never asked to even consider or explore this option.

To date there has been no public discussion of the BNSF proposal by Galesburg's City Council or administration. The issue was neither on Monday night's agenda nor brought up by aldermen or city staff. Nevertheless, council members who have expressed an opinion on the issue have been highly skeptical of the proposal. Almost everyone I spoke to would like to see some overpasses constructed over the Santa Fe tracks, particularly on West Main Street; and all want to see something decided regarding overpasses prior to any discussion of closing crossings.

If overpasses were to be constructed they would be large, complex and costly projects. According to Townlian, the potential cost of each overpass in Galesburg could range anywhere from $2-3 million to over $15 million depending on the location chosen. ''It is unlikely that more than one or at most two overpasses could be constructed simultaneously due to both practical and financial limitations and I would guess the average price per overpass would be in the range of $5-10 million.'' The presence of the Cedar Fork precludes any consideration of an underpass and construction of any overpass would require some financial involvement by the BNSF.

''The BNSF would actively promote these projects to the ICC and DOT where funding assistance of up to 60 percent of the project cost is usually available,'' said Townlian. ''The railroad's level of financial involvement would depend an awful lot on how far the city is willing to go with the project. The greater the number of crossings that Galesburg is willing to help us eliminate, the greater the BNSF will likely participate in cost sharing. At a minimum the railroad must contribute five percent of the project cost but this amount could be negotiated with the city as part of the planning process.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online July 29, 2000

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