BY JEFF CLARK
With the possibility of six railroad crossings being closed on Columbus’ Southside, a public hearing will be held tonight at the Trotter Convention Center beginning at 5 p.m. The forum will give the public an opportunity to speak with Kansas City Southern Railroad personnel as well as with city officials. KCSR has given the city a proposal which would close railroad crossings at Second Street S., Sixth Street S., Eighth Street S., Ninth Street S., 10th Street S. and 17th Street S. In return, KCSR would provide upgrades for six additional crossings.
Tuesday night at the Townsend Community Center, Kevin Stafford of Neel-Schaffer Engineering joined Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor and other city officials at a community meeting. It was the first public forum for Stafford since the city and Neel-Schaffer came to a new hourly-rate agreement for the engineering firm. Also on hand was project manager Robyn Eastman of J5/Broaddus.
“For every one crossing they close, they will leave one open and upgrade it,” said Stafford of the proposal. “The crossings will be upgraded with bells and whistles. But they won’t take any less than six closings. This will impact the area from Second Street to 22nd Street.”
Stafford said if the city decides to close the crossings, they also have the option to turn the closed areas into “quiet zones.”
“Another thing that comes with closing is a quiet zone,” Stafford said. “If upgrades are made medians will be put in, but they will have to be done by the city. It will be on the city’s time and dime to put them in.”
Stafford estimated the medians would cost approximately $60,000.
Taylor said the city had been in talks with KCSR since 2012.
“We were pulled in to determine which closings make the most sense and what impact it would have on the residents,” Stafford said.
The community center was packed to near capacity to both listen and ask questions.
Sid Carradine was one of the first members of the audience to question Stafford about the project. KCSR officials were not present at the meeting.
“Is there any money in this,” Carradine asked. “Is this about money?”
Stafford replied, “No. This is not about money. MDOT provides the money, not the railroads.”
Carradine then asked Stafford about the safety and well-being of the people on the Southside.
Mayor Robert Smith was sitting in the audience and arose from his seat and walked to the front of the room to help facilitate the meeting.
“From the city’s standpoint, Mr. Carradine, all of this will be taken into consideration before the recommendation is made. When I say we’ll take it into consideration, I mean the citizens will make the recommendation.”
Smith assured the crowd they city had declined prior KCSR requests and they would not make a hasty decision regarding the latest proposal.
“A representative from the railroad came to us and sat down with us — they originally wanted to close seven, but we said we wouldn’t even discuss it.The primary reason for this meeting and the meeting on Thursday night is to listen to the people who will be affected by it if it happens.”
Taylor began to introduce Eastman, but instead addressed the audience himself.
“We will vote on whatever decision the citizens will make,” said Taylor when asked how he thought the council will vote.
When asked again how he thinks the council will vote, Taylor said, “Basically we will have to hear what MDOT has to say and what the general public has to say and the railroad has to say before we make any decisions as far as this meeting is concerned.”
Smith intervened as the mood in the room began to change.
“I’ll add this, this would not go before the mayor and council based on the suggestions we’ve heard tonight,” Smith said. “Based on what we hear Thursday, Councilman Taylor, (Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens) and myself will make a decision. This isn’t the first time the railroad has come to the City of Columbus and make an offer. In the past we’ve said no.”
Emergencies And Train Whistles
“If there is an emergency, your house will be burned down and you will be dead before an ambulance can get there,” said Southside resident Bessie Pruitt. “You put all of this money in Downtown. We elected you. We don’t want our railroads closed. We don’t want them closed.”
Columbus Fire Chief Ken Moore and Columbus Police Chief Selvain McQueen were on hand to address the public’s safety concerns.
“We have studied this,” Moore said. “There are some major thoroughfares we use on a daily basis that are wide enough. To say it’s not going to affect two people’s houses in the thicker spots, I can’t say that. But it shouldn’t be a major problem.”
Another concern for Southside residents and business owners is the noise from the trains.
Roger Larsen, who owns a warehouse on the Southside, said he is in favor of closing the crossings but said the train whistles are quite loud.
“If I could comment on the train whistles,” Larsen said. “It’s something that rattles the windows downtown. The Kansas City Southern is the one that’s doing that.”