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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016

Your view: Dangerous crossing

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

No doubt there are some people in southeast Missouri who believe the outcome of the railroad question will not affect them. Anyone who travels on U.S. Highway 60, however, may want to take a second look.

In 1999, during the final phase of the construction of Sikeston's north interchange on I-55, they had to stop traffic to place the girders across the supports. They only did this a couple of times and at night when traffic would be lighter.

In the early hours of June 15, Charles "Bud" Beal was driving home to Sikeston and came to this point. The truck ahead of him from Xania, Ohio, stopped. He stopped. The truck behind him from Decatur, Ill., did not.

What was left of his car was taken to a salvage yard on Smith Street. It was difficult to identify the make and model. There are only two good things that can be said about his tragic death: he was alone and it was quick.

"Bud" Beal is not a statistic. He was born in Cape Girardeau in 1945, graduated from Pittsfield (Ill.) High School and attended Eastern Illinois University. He had been the manager of JC Penney's in Sikeston and the Wal-

Mart Stores in Malden and Jackson.

Having learned the retail business there, he set out on his own and opened The Shoe Box and Heartland Books in Sikeston. In some respects, he was an ordinary guy trying to make a living and pursuing his version of the American dream. He attended First United Methodist Church. He had a family and was survived by a mother, several aunts, uncles and cousins.

Why bring this up and reopen painful memories for his family? Because his death is an example of what Union Pacific, and by acquiescence MoDOT, have in mind for the rest of us. This is not of what can happen when you try to stop high speed traffic on a four lane divided highway, it's what does happen.

I hope his family will understand the use his example as an attempt to save the lives of other people. There but for the grace of god ....

In their letter to the Surface Transportation Board (STB), MoDOT referred to Union Pacific's plan to increase train traffic over the old Cotton Belt line between Sikeston and Dexter. That plan calls for an increase in traffic from one train a week to 10 (and UP spokesmen say perhaps 20) trains a day. These trains will cross U.S. Highway 60 west of Morehouse.

MoDOT could have described U.S. 60, accurately, as a four-lane divided highway with a posted speed of 65 mph and a daily traffic count of 11,000 cars and trucks a day. They did not. Instead, they referred to it simply as "Route 60." (No point in alarming the STB or upsetting Union Pacific).

We know it as something even more than that. We know it as the concrete extension of Interstate 57 that ends in Sikeston. We know that for southbound I-57 traffic, that has generally been traveling for hours on I-57 by the time they get here, there is a change of signage in Sikeston, but very little else. It's one continuous ribbon of concrete.

We know that before we got an overpass built at the intersection of U.S. 60 and U.S. 61 (south Main), south of Sikeston, all the lights and signs put up to stop that traffic frequently failed. Driver habits simply don't change that quickly. We buried the victims.

At this point, the first indication any driver, coming off I-57 onto U.S. 60, has that they would ever be required to stop is at Morehouse, at the rail crossing. Of course, now that only actually happens once a week.

In MoDOT's letter to the STB, the intersection of UP's line with "Route 60" is mentioned. Everyone agrees that an overpass should be built. What's at issue is whether 10 to 20 trains a day should be allowed to run on that line during the two years it will take to construct one.

For their part, MoDOT has taken the principled stand of suggesting, but not insisting, that UP wait the two years. They wrote STB merely that: "agreement has not been reached whether interim measures could be used until the grade separation is completed." That's telling 'em.

They could have, but they did not request STB to make the completion of an overpass on 60 a precondition for their approval. Such pre-conditions by STB are standard and common. A subsequent request to MoDOT to add such a request in a follow-up letter to STB has been ignored.

MoDOT did ask the STB for one pre-condition to approval. It concerns funding. At MoDOT, money it seems has taken priority over saving peoples lives.

Union Pacific, whose spokesmen chant the hollow mantra: "Safety is our top priority," don't want to wait for an overpass. For them, an "on-grade" system of signs, lights and gates seems adequate. Mr. James Young, CEO of Union Pacific, even had the unmitigated brass to write our United States Senators and claim that this would be "safer" than running his trains to the north.

On UP's Rockview-Dexter line (the northern option), there are no major highways but already two overpasses for state roads that have no where near the traffic of U.S. Highway 60. Running trains across 60 is safer? There's that warm, wet feeling going down our pant legs again. The difference, we hope, is this time they're senatorial pant legs as well.

"Bud" Beal died when high-speed traffic on a four-lane, controlled access highway was stopped for a couple of nights. The Union Pacific Railroad wants to bring U.S. Highway 60 traffic to a full stop 10 to 20 times a day for two years. That would be from 7,300 to 14,600 times.

In 1973, Congress passed the Federal Railway Safety Act. It provided funds to the states to erect and maintain safety crossing devices where rail lines and roadways cross. It was a victory for the railroads.

In the years since, railroad lobbyists have been equally successful in the adoption of numerous federal regulations that strictly limit how much they can be asked to contribute to the cost of these safety measures.

Finally, in 2000, they won their crown jewel with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that "pre-empts state tort claims concerning a railroad's failure to maintain adequate warning devices at crossings where federal funds have participated in the devices installation." Short version: they cannot be sued when people die.

Perhaps overall, that's good public policy. After all, there are idiots out there who will try to race a train, and people who simply choose parking on a train track as the surest way to commit suicide. Outside Missouri, it would be one way to collect on their life insurance. Railroad companies should not be saddled with that.

However, it seems to me that by pre-empting state laws governing railroads, and then granting them immunity from law suits, our federal government collectively assumes an obligation to insure that the conditions that result are as safe as reasonably possible for the American people. Clearly, what's proposed here is not.

The safest configuration of a highway-railway crossing is at 90 degrees with no visual obstruction. The intersection of U.S. Highway 60 and Union Pacific's Sikeston-Dexter line, at Morehouse, is a gradual convergence of two lines that travel between the same two communities.

Plus, there are numerous visual obstructions. Coming from the east, the City of Morehouse itself blocks the view from the highway of all southbound trains, and that's the direction these will be running. Coming out of Sikeston at 45 mph, they'll be picking up speed. From the standpoint of physical layout, this intersection could hardly be less safe than it is.

For anyone traveling U.S. Highway 60 (east or west), there would be no protection, no defense. It wouldn't matter how well you knew the area or that you knew to stop. You'd have to worry about the car behind you, the elderly car driver behind him, or the weary truck driver from Peoria, Ill., behind them. We'll all be looking in the rearview mirror, for all the good it will do.

And, that's when the weather is clear (June 15, 1999, was a clear night). Do ya think Union Pacific would be willing to stop their trains on rainy nights or foggy mornings? You know, seeing as how safety is their top priority and all.

Technically, the deaths that would result won't even be classified as railways accidents. Unless a vehicle were pushed into the train, the engineer on board would never even know something had happened. Union Pacific won't even know to send flowers.

Every year, in this country, there are 3,000 highway-railway accidents with 1,000 fatalities. These wouldn't even count. They would be highway accidents.

There are reasons why trains are not allowed to cross Interstate Highways. U.S. Highway 60 is not "Route 60." It was designated by Congress to be a "Highway of National Significance." It's the closest thing Missouri has to an Interstate standard with controlled access (though not completely) and, to repeat, it is the physical extension of Interstate 57. I think of it as the "Emerson" Highway.

The irony here could not be more complete. From 1989 forward, when Bill Emerson committed himself to getting U.S. Highway 60 four-laned, the most compelling and effective argument has been that two-lane highways have four times the fatality rate of four-lane highways. There's one thing about two-lane highways though. People are used to stopping.

If this plan goes through without waiting for an overpass to be constructed, it will be an equal opportunity killer. It will be an open-ended death sentence decreed by the federal government and accepted by MoDOT in their eagerness to keep Union Pacific's lobbyists happy. We will be filling in the names as we go.

I believe we can object, with some indignation, to having our families, our neighbors and our friends dismissed as "collateral damage" by people who, having secured an exemption from tort liability for the accidents they cause, piously claim that safety is their top priority.

In their filing before the STB, Union Pacific said they chose this route because they could, "do so at a lower cost than double-tracking UPRR's existing Rockview-Dexter line." (emphasis added). Make no mistake. This is not about safety. This is about money.

But it's also about timing. The southern route for Union Pacific is not only cheaper (for them), it's faster. That is, it's faster if they don't have to wait two years for an overpass to be constructed.

Of course, if Union Pacific had followed through on their original plan when they first began acquiring right of way to double-track their northern line (buying 33 individual tracts starting in October, 1997 but suspended after September, 2002), they'd be finished by now. Even now, they could undoubtedly double-track their north line in the two years it would take to build an overpass on 60.

What all this means then, is that the people of southeast Missouri are being asked to pay for the lethargy and indecision of Union Pacific's management with our lives. That is not good public policy.

Sikeston's City Treasurer, Karen Bailey used to have a placard that read: "poor planning on your part does not necessarily create an emergency on my part." Let's hope government officials at the state and federal level will summon the fortitude to say the same to Union Pacific. Nancy Reagan had it about right. She said, "Just Say No."

Personally, I will not use the term "accident" to describe what happens if this is approved. "Bud" Beal died in an accident. This will have been planned, considered and approved by public officials as having "acceptable human losses" among people someone will have decided don't count.

Anyone familiar with Washington can imagine the firestorm if a similar proposal were made for Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Va. No one would dare. I bet they wouldn't try it in Omaha, Neb., either.

No, it's time to call a spade a shovel. For me the term manslaughter would be more appropriate. It involves "a callous indifference to the loss of human life." If you think that's too extreme, you probably didn't see "Bud" Beal's car on Smith Street.

Josh Bill