Dangerous rail crossing needs redone

Issue: Supervisors and Nebraska Department of Roads at impasse.Help Requested: Custer County Corn Growers launch petition asking for the public’s help to bring about the needed change.Here’s How: To sign the petition look at the top right hand corner of this website (www.custercountychief.com) and click on Hot Topics.The Story: There’s a railroad crossing in Custer County that is a tragedy waiting to happen. If you ask the local corn growers, it isn’t a matter of if, it is a matter of when.Nebraska Department of Roads and Burlington Northern Sante Fe are in agreement. They have the same suggestions ... close the crossing. For these entities, compromise and/or alternate suggestions are not part of the conversation.“We’ve met with the members of the board. Between the county board and the state, we are at an impasse,” said Ellis Tompkins of the Nebraska Department of Roads.“The (Custer) County Supervisors want to build something that doesn’t meet our design standards .... the state suggest that the crossing be closed and have the traffic go through Anselmo.”This seems simple enough, until the issue is given more thought.Local residents want the crossing to stay open. Area emergency rescue volunteers want it to stay open, it is an important access venue for emergency vehicles. Don Cantrell and area corn growers want it to stay open to have a direct route into The Andersons’ grain facility.When a semi comes from the east, to go through Anselmo adds an additional seven miles per trip. If the estimated 10 million bushels of grain that come from that direction go that route, it adds up to 70,000 additional miles per year.Using a cost estimate of approximately $2 per mile, that is an additional $70,000 per year, explained Cantrell. A meeting Sept. 23 with Cantrell, three supervisors and representatives from BNSF and the State Highway Department (NDR) did not produce any change in opinions.“Look at Anselmo. It is like a ghost town. What are there - like six people in the town? There may be one kid under 12 in the town,” said Ab Anshasi of NDOR, according to written notes provided by Cantrell and verified by Custer County Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry Hickenbottom. “The meeting was a waste of time. Going all that way and all they could talk about was closing the crossing. We talked but it wasn’t productive. We asked if there was any way they would help to make the crossing safe and they wouldn’t answer,” said Hickenbottom of the meeting.“So far we haven’t had any cooperation from the railroad or the state, without their cooperation we can’t do anything.”There is a solution Tompkins said Monday in an interview with the Chief.“Close the crossing. Have the trucks and everyone else go through Anselmo and then up the road The Andersons have already paved.”State appeals to county to close crossing:In January 2013, BNSF and NDOR representatives appeared at the Custer County Board of Super-visors to place their appeal to close the crossing, saying that safety was an ongoing issue.At that meeting Tompkins said that the county would receive $5,000 from the state and $5,000 from the railroad and an additional $12,000 to erect barricades in exchange for voting to close the crossing. The BNSF Manager of Public Projects Andy Amparan said he was authorized to increase the payments from BNSF to $25,000 to close.”The crossing has a passive warning system (a sign) and no cross arms, no bells and no whistles, and at that time did not have enough traffic to justify an active warning system. Tompkins said that even if there were they would never approve of an active warning system for a crossing at an angle.“We have no power to force the closing of the crossing, but we are respectfully asking that it be closed,” he said at the time.At the time the tracks and highway were first laid, trucks were about the size of a good kitchen table. When asked at the meeting how many crossings allow for the necessary clearance for today’s semi and Tompkins replied, very few.At the time of this meeting there were approximately 60 trains per day. This crossing .. two tracks ... no active warning system ... not enough clearance for an 18 wheeler ... the road intersecting at an angle ... forms a dangerous combination, said Tompkins.When asked again about gates, Tompkins said that nationwide, 50 percent of the railroad accidents happen at a gated crossing.“Having gates does not stop people from being stupid,” he said.Emergency personnel restated their concerns and their desires for the crossing to be kept open and for the crossing to be improved and made safer.Supervisor Richard Hodson added his opinion.“Safety is an issue, but I see it as an effort to close the crossing. We would not be mitigating the issues but merely transferring the safety issue from the county to the community and I don’t care to take that responsibility. The safety would then be transferred to a different populace, the children,” Hodson said. County submits plans to make the crossing safer to the stateThe county has already paid to have the necessary engineering completed for a way to make the crossing safer, to change the crossing so it is perpendicular to the highway, and to bring the road up to grade. The plans were submitted to the State Department of Roads and the Plans were turned down. Estimated cost, says Cantrell, is $450,000.When Tompkins was asked why the State would not accept the re-engineering of the road as presented by the Supervisors he said that the crossing did not meet the state’s minimum setback standards. The tracks are 80 feet from the edge of the driving lane to the center of the closest track according to Cantrell, Tompkins says the tracks hit at 82 feet, but the state standard is 110 feet.This is a figure Cantrell finds interesting ... The crossing at the Fairgrounds in Broken Bow measure 79 feet, Ord measures 72 feet 6 inches, Sweetwater measures 53 feet 3 inches and the three crossings between Cairo and Grand Island measure 76-77 feet. This distance is necessary, says Tompkins because when you cross the tracks with a tractor trailer you need that kind of distance to have the trailer clear the tracks before clearing the road.Cantrell finds it even more interesting that when BNSF built their second track, they built it between the first track and the highway shortening up this already ‘questionable’ distance. “The railroad says they never close the crossings (when a train stops), but if you talk to the people in Anselmo they say it differently,” said Hickenbottom. Anselmo Fire Chief Mark Christen reiterated his department’s desire to keep the crossing open.“There are three crossings at or near Anselmo and a train can block any two at the same time. If there is a fire on the other side of the tracks and the train is sitting, it could take a half hour to get there,” said Christen. “Even 15 minute is a long time if your place is on fire.” Anselmo citizens express opinions through community-wide public hearingA packed public hearing in the spring of 2012 provided an opportunity for the community to express their desire to have the crossing stay open. The hearing followed an accident where a train collided with the trailer section of a tractor trailer unit that was crossing the tracks at this particular crossing. There were two trains on the track, both approaching from the west. The truck driver was turning north across the tracks, on its way to The Anderson site. The driver looked west and saw one of the trains, the one closest to the highway. This train was moving at a slow rate of speed.The driver did not see the second train. He didn’t see it until after he had crossed the tracks, but the trailer had not. The flatbed and the machinery it was carrying were destroyed. At the time of the accident no injuries were reported.A week later, BNSF announced that the crossing would remain open. During the community meeting, safety concerns were expressed about the crossing as it sits today, but the idea of having it closed scared the community even more. Custer County Corn Growers start petition drive to gather signatures and commentsCantrell summarized the situation at a meeting in May ...“I have truck drivers who use that crossing. I use that crossing, my neighbors and my friends use that crossing. We need it open, the community needs it open and we want it safe.”With impasse in place, Cantrell and the Corn Growers are asking for help from the area citizens.“The solution is not to closs the crossing, the solution is to fix the problem.” They would like to present the governor with a peition, with as many signatures as possible when he comes to Broken Bow at the end of the month.To sign the petition and/or comment on the crossing go to the top of this website (www.custercountychief.com) and click on Hot Topics located at the upper right hand corner of the web page.