Lawmaker wants to put railroad fixes back on track

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Kirk D . Richards


When someone calls to report a problem with railroad tracks, local governments can do little.

A city or village can’t hire a contractor to fix the problem because the tracks are private property.

Still, it’s private property that affects public transportation.

"Railroads are the only private entity that can cross highways and have their own special right of way," said state Rep. Larry Wolpert.

Wolpert, a Hilliard Republican, is trying to give local governments more power to deal with problem railroad tracks through House Bill 637, which he recently introduced.

Under the bill, local governments could file complaints with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which would be directed to investigate. PUCO would notify the railroad company of any problems and set a deadline for them to be fixed. Failure to comply would result in fines of up to $10,000.

"It’ll give the local governments that have railroad tracks running through their jurisdictions more teeth in dealing with these issues," Wolpert said.

Grove City Mayor Cheryl Grossman said that over the years, she has had difficulty getting railroad companies to quickly fix hazards at crossings.

Just this month, a man fell out of his wheel- chair when he came across a steep bump while trying to cross the tracks at Park Street. Bill Sherrod was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, a couple was calling 911 and cleaning up some of his blood.

"There could’ve been a train coming," said Sherrod, who said his wheelchair was trapped by the same tracks in the spring.

He lives on Park Street west of the tracks and needs to cross them to reach downtown if he wants to shop or go out for breakfast. His legs are amputated at the knees.

"I’m afraid to go over them anymore," Sherrod said. "I guess I’m stuck on this side of the tracks."

The mayor is not ready to concede.

"It’s important for the railroads to know that they can’t compromise the safety of our residents," Grossman said.

Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX Transportation, which operates a 22,000-mile railroad network in the eastern United States, said that he needed to check on the proposed Ohio legislation but didn’t have any concerns with the concept.

"I would hope we would be responsive enough that we wouldn’t have to worry with fines or penalties," said Sease, whose company is based in Jacksonville, Fla.

Currently, local governments can send letters to the companies and then, after trying to resolve the issue through PUCO, take them to court.

But municipalities and townships aren’t able to do the work themselves.

"Most local governments don’t typically have the expertise for that," said Shana Eiselstein, a spokeswoman for PUCO. "And it would require them to shut down a crossing, which they shouldn’t be doing."

The legislation would allow for an appeals process. A railroad company could challenge the findings in a hearing. However, if the problem is an emergency, PUCO could shut down a track before a hearing.

Vicky Moore, of the Angels on Track Foundation in Salineville, objects to changes the legislation would make to the policy on brush near railroad tracks. The current law states that plants must be cleared on 600 feet of each side of railroad tracks, she said, but the proposal would require clearing brush, trees and weeds only if they are "materially obstructive."

"It gives the railroads and PUCO the ability to determine what an obstruction is," Moore said.

The issue is personal for Moore, whose son, Ryan, was killed by a train in 1995. He was riding in a car with her eldest son, Jason, who pulled up to a northeastern Ohio crossing and couldn’t see the train coming because trees blocked his view.

Wolpert is still considering amendments but noted that there are industry standards for railroads that he wants the bill to follow.

"It’s not going to be based on somebody driving over some tracks and saying, ‘Oh, this feels bumpy,’ " Wolpert said. "This is about safety."


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