By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
City officials — spurred by reminders of the hazards it may pose — are expected to discuss the closure of the West Columbia Street railroad crossing in this week’s council meeting.
“I’m taking this to the council, and it’s up to them whether or not they want to take the risk or go ahead and close it,” said Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler.
A resolution to close the oft-traveled crossing is on the agenda for the Monday Somerset City Council meeting — although it should be noted that no public discussion on the issue will be held, as the public hearing was held in September.
Girdler said the city has been “reminded” by officials with Norfolk Southern Railroad and the Kentucky Department of Transportation about the possible dangers of the West Columbia Crossing 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.
The train that derailed in southwestern Jefferson County forced the evacuation, and residents were unable to return home for a significant amount of time until the site was deemed safe.
“That’s kind of an indication of what would happen here,” Girdler said.
Girdler has said U.S. 27 and those residences around the railroad would be negatively impacted in the event of a collision or derailment.
“Due to the dangerous situation and the jobs involved and U.S. 27 ... we would have to shut down everything (if a train derailed),” Girdler said.
The crossing is considered one of the most dangerous on Norfolk Southern’s 20,000-mile railway system.
William Miller, manager of grade crossing safety for Norfolk Southern, and Vince Means, a supervisor with the company who is based in Somerset, emphatically said during the public meeting in September — which garnered only support for the closure from those in attendance — that the sheer number of reported tractor trailers getting hung up on the crossing in the past two years has proven that the crossing needs to be closed.
“I think we’ve been very fortunate ... we’re running 41 trains a day over Columbia Street crossing on average,” Miller said. “There will come a time if we don’t close the crossing that something very bad could happen.”
Means later said that the Columbia Street crossing could see as many as 50 to 60 trains on a busy day.
City officials and Norfolk Southern have discussed keeping a pedestrian crosswalk open on the crossing, since many people in the area make the trek by foot to businesses located on U.S. 27.
Pedestrians would have to watch for trains closely, as the crossing’s signals wouldn’t be at the crossing should vehicle traffic be shut down.
Miller said during the public meeting that a Department of Transportation traffic study on the crossing from 1994 stated that an average of 700 vehicles cross the track there daily. That number, Miller said, is no doubt a low one since Somerset has grown in the 18 years since the study was done.
Girdler said the closure would go into effect by mid-February if the council chooses to pass the resolution on Monday.