Commonwealth Journal

December 11, 2012

It’s official: West Columbia Street railroad crossing will close

By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

The West Columbia Street railroad crossing — a popular but hazardous shortcut for motorists in the downtown Somerset area — will officially be closed in early 2013. 
“That crossing down there is probably one of the most used crossings in the city,” said Somerset City Councilor Jerry Wheeldon, whose district includes the area around the crossing.
A resolution to close the crossing to all vehicle traffic by around February 15, 2013 was passed in a 11-1 vote during Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting.
City officials were approached by officials with Norfolk Southern Railroad and the Kentucky Department of Transportation in the fall about the possible dangers of the West Columbia crossing. Those officials said the sheer number of tractor trailer trucks that become hung up on the crossing — due to the steep grade of the crossing — poses a serious safety issue. A collision between a train and a large truck could lead to a derailment. 
A tractor trailer reportedly got stuck over the crossing on Friday. Norfolk Southern officials have said as many as 50 to 60 trains travel through the West Columbia crossing daily. 
Those sentiments were brought up again just a few weeks ago after an October train derailment in Jefferson County led to the evacuation of a residential area located within a one-mile radius of the derailment site.
During Monday’s meeting, Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler said a derailment could lead to an evacuation of businesses located along U.S. 27 — and even Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital. 
“In our case, because of its proximity to U.S. 27 and the hospital, it presents a special problem,”  Girdler said on Monday. 
The crossing is considered one of the most dangerous on Norfolk Southern’s 20,000-mile railway system, and Girdler emphasized that during Monday’s meeting. 
City Councilor Mark Beasley, who attended his last city council meeting as a councilor on Monday, asked that the city include in the resolution that the crossing stay open to pedestrian traffic, and that the resolution contain a clause stating the city can revisit the crossing in the future if other solutions besides closing it down become available. 
“This way there would be an option to revisit it at some point,” Beasley said.
Girdler said the city is receiving compensation from the state and from Norfolk Southern for the closure, and he said the city can place signs and even lights at the crossing to warn pedestrians of an oncoming train. 
Many residents in the West Columbia area regularly make the trek by foot to U.S. 27.
Wheeldon said he agreed that the crossing was a dangerous one, but he asked that the council look into providing residents there other ways to access major roads in the city by the time the closure goes into effect in February.
“Everybody I’ve talked to over there, they’re concerned about the life saving deal but they’re also ... (asking) ‘how do we get out of here?’” Wheeldon said. 
Wheeldon said residents in the West Columbia area try to avoid accessing U.S. 27 and Ky. 80 by way of Ogden Street. Park Avenue and Beck Street, both connectors located between West Columbia and Ogden, can be difficult to pull out from, especially amid heavy traffic. Wheeldon said the steep incline of Park Avenue is especially dangerous. 
“Most of them, that’s the reason they go across the railroad because it (the Park Avenue-Ogden intersection) is so unsafe,” Wheeldon said. “... You won’t find a more dangerous place because you have to pull up into the street 20 feet before you can see anything.” 
Wheeldon said he’s worried the West Columbia closure will send more people to the Ogden Street-Park Avenue intersection. 
Girdler said the city would look into placing its own warning lights and signs at the Ogden Street intersection and he said the city’s engineers would look at the situation as well. 
“I’m all for closing it because of the safety of our people,” Wheeldon said. “It’d be hard to sit here and vote against closing that crossing and somebody gets killed next week. 
“We just need an exit out of there for those people,” Wheeldon added. 
Wheeldon and Beasley, and Councilors Tom Eastham, Linda Stringer, Jerry Girdler, Mike New, Jerry Burnett, Pat Bourne, Jim Mitchell, John Ricky Minton and Donna Hunley voted to close the crossing. 
Councilor Jim Rutherford voted against the closure.