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Time for workin' on the railroad is running out

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City has until June to meet safety requirements

By Emory Williamson

Three hundred twenty nine days and counting.

If the City of La Grange fails to implement safety measures to railway crossings by June 3, 2010, train operators will begin blaring horns as cars roll through the city.

City council members voted unanimously Monday on a resolution to close a crossing at Second Street and install medians on First Street in order to adhere to Federal Railway Administration safety requirements.

The quiet zone – from Sixth through Cedar streets – contains that incoming trains will lower their speeds and not blare their horns. However, if work to ensure federal regulations isn’t completed, the quiet zone will be tossed out.

According to the FRA, the city fell out of compliance following an increase in traffic accidents involving motorists and oncoming trains.

City attorney Graham Whatley said as downtown La Grange increases in popularity, risks of an unsafe area grow as well.

“Federal rules don’t care about the historic district or how many cars are crossing,” Whatley said. “It’s an issue of safety. Cars could be stacked a mile long down the road and they don’t care. It’s all about safety.”

Melanie Woosley, the council member who introduced the resolution, said city officials must act quickly to maintain the quiet zone.

“We need to work toward this deadline so we don’t lose what we already have,” Woosley said about the deadline, which is less than a year away. “If we don’t tackle this now, we are going to lose our quiet zone.”

Woosley said First Street will have concrete medians – extending 100 feet from both gate lines on First Street, perpendicular to Main Street – installed to decrease safety risks. The medians will deter drivers from attempting to go around crossing gates, Woosley said.

Woosley said, however, debate over what to do with Second Street is the key issue.

FRA officials suggested three options for the city: the first option would be to make Second Street a one-way street and install gates. The $180,000  installation, however, would take 18-30 months from CSX and would extend past the deadline, subsequently stripping La Grange of its quiet zone.

The second option includes converting the crossing into a private crossing. Measures – $6,000-$12,000 gates controlled by authorized persons only – will be required to keep traffic and access to the fire department only. Access will be provided at the rear for residents to enter and park at the skateboard park, without traversing through to Main Street. When the fire department relocates, the Second Street private crossing will be permanently closed.

The third option – which the city council and FRA agree will be best – is to close Second Street permanently, eliminating the safety risk. There would be no cost and incentive funding will be available from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and matched by CSX Transportation, which can be applied to safety measures for First Street and other city projects.

Although Woosley compiled an initial resolution, Mayor Elsie Carter said the possibility of adding gates and keeping Second Street open remain a viable option; thus the resolution was amended and voted upon to include the possibility of adding gates, which would forego the idea of closing Second Street.

Realtor Tom Cox heeds blame toward Carter and other council members for delaying discussion of the issue. He urged for the council to close Second Street in order for officials to see how damaging the closing can be for the city. He said once road and train officials see how harmful closing of the street can be to the city, ruling will likely reverse.

“I hate it, but if we don’t keep the quiet zone you can close La Grange,” Cox said to council members.

Former La Grange mayor John Black said gates should be installed and the closing of Second Street will hurt local businesses and lower property values due to backed-up traffic.

Black addressed Woosley at the meeting, urging her not to close Second Street.

“It will close this city down,” Black said. “As a growing city, you can’t close any more crossings. The town is growing and we’ve got to keep these arteries open.”

Oldham County Fiscal Court member David Voegele said the reintroduction of train horns will severely detract from the ambiance of La Grange and the flux of thriving tourism and business growth.

“Letting the whistle blow is intolerable,” Voegele said. “We won’t have a town left.”

Voegele also suggested inserting more political firepower in the mix by urging Sen. Mitch McConnell and other politicians to advocate for the city.

He said Second Street could stay open and the city could keep its quiet zone and keep all streets open if they asked for more help by extending their June 3, 2010 deadline.

“I don’t believe somebody in our county can’t get a returned call from Mitch McConnell,” he said. “I refuse to believe it can’t be reversed. We’ve got to keep it quiet, but we need to keep our streets open.”

Email us about this story at: eeemory@oldhamera.com.