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Rail crossing discussions

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Aldermen hear comments from citizens on Monday

By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

The Vandalia City Council is scheduled to decide in the near future whether to place stop signs on streets along the local rail line, and almost all aldermen were present on Monday to hear comments about that proposal.
However, they may not even have to make that decision, based on a couple of comments made during a meeting of the council’s streets and public safety committees.
Charlie Barenfanger, a Vandalia resident who is president of Illinois and Western railroads, has asked for the placement of those stops signs as part of the plan to revive the local rail line.
At the beginning of July, Barenfanger told city officials that he is working with Agracel to purchase the local rail line from Pioneer Railroad.
The north-south rail line was started after the city purchased a little more than two miles of track for local service after the line was abandoned by Illinois Gulf Central Railroad in 1981.
A couple of years later, Barenfanger and his brother, Walt, signed an agreement with the city to operate the line, serving local industry by hauling cars to and from the east-west Conrail line. It was later sold to Pioneer Railroad.
Barenfanger said that he and Agracel are interested in purchasing and operating the line to help spur economic development in Vandalia.
One requirement, he said, is that stop signs be placed along the track at four locations:
• Eighth and Randolph streets.
• Jefferson Street, east of Ruemmelin Park.
• Fillmore Street.
• Janett Avenue.
While he initially said that the existing crossing signals would be removed when stop signs are erected, Barenfanger said that Mike Stead of the Illinois Commerce Commission has told him that if the signals are removed, the rail operator would have to have a flag man stop traffic at the crossings.
Barenfanger is asking for the stop signs to help keep the developers’ insurance rates at a reasonable level.
“It would make it impossible to afford the insurance if we don’t get the stop signs,” he said, explaining that insurance companies would set the rates higher due to an accident near the Janett crossing several years ago.
Barenfanger said that while it was stated that the driver in that accident was driving close to 100 mph, the condition of the crossing was a factor in an insurance settlement.
“I don’t think the stop signs would cause any problems,” he said.
However, several people said that they believe otherwise.
Alderman Dorothy Crawford and Vandalia Board of Education President Chris Palmer are concerned that stop signs at the Fillmore Street crossing would make an already bad traffic problem worse.
Crawford said that a stop sign, in conjunction with the existing stop sign for southbound traffic on nearby Railroad Drive (Fletcher Street) would be “more confusing” and cause traffic to be “more congested.”
“I do understand that it makes it better for you (Barenfanger),” Crawford said.
“I do understand where you’re coming from, and I do want to see this railroad run the way it’s supposed to be, but not at the citizens of Vandalia,” she said.
Palmer said that, speaking as both a parent and the school board president, he agreed with Crawford’s assessment.
“It’s already backlogged, it’s a mess,” Palmer said. “I think its going to create a lot of headaches.”
Palmer asked the council to consider that 1,200 children attend school at the elementary, junior high and high schools in that area, meaning that it affects 1,200-2,400 parents.
“It’s really going to jam things up (at that crossing) for 180 days (the school year).”
Both and Crawford said that in addition to the traffic congestion before and after school, there are problems in that area after sporting events and other school activities.
Crawford asked Mike Critcheloe, transportation supervisor for the school district, his opinion about the effect on the Fillmore Street crossing.
He said that bus drivers would have to stop both at a stop sign on Fillmore and then again at the rail crossing.
“It’s do-able,” Critcheloe said. “I’m just worried about the congestion.
“I’m more worried about Randolph (street), about somebody T-boning a bus that’s coming east down the hill (on Eighth Street),” he said.
Alderman Terry Beesley said that aldermen have to weigh the benefit to economic development efforts with the possible traffic issues.
“We have a decision to make, and it’s a tough decision,” he said. “We either inconvenience ourselves or we let the railroad die – it’s on its last leg now.”
Mayor Rick Gottman spoke in favor of saving the rail line, because of its role in the city’s economic development efforts.
“Anyone who has looked at the Graham building has said that you’ve got to have rail. If you don’t have a railroad, it will be tough to market that building,” Gottman said.
Several times during the meeting, Barenfanger was asked if the issue could be resolved by making improvements to the crossings, which would be the city’s responsibility.
Barenfanger said that an insurance company would still require stop signs in order to offer low rates.
He said that probably the best way to improve those crossings would be to use concrete, as Andy Craig did for the rail line near his warehouse complex on Randolph Street.
A vote on the stop signs could be a moot point based on some comments made by Barenfanger on Monday.
He said that Agracel – a company with facilities in 14 states, including Effingham – is starting to have “cold feet” because of a couple of factors.
One, he said, is the projected cost of rehabilitating the rail line to get it in good shape. Barenfanger said that could cost as much as half a million dollars.
Agracel also expressed concern about the amount of investment needed for the project based on a letter that Barenfanger received from City Attorney Jack Johnston last week.
After the meeting, Barenfanger said that in the letter, the city is asking for some changes in the rail line operating agreement.
Gottman said that the letter only confirms the terms of the agreement.
In that letter, Johnston said that “any concurrence on the part of the city in a request to the Federal Railway Administration for substitution of stop signs for electronic controls would be conditioned upon modification … so that responsibility for maintenance of the operating core would be solely the responsibility of (the) lessee.”
Barenfanger said that should Agracel decide not to be involved in the rail line, the plan to revive the rail line would fall by the wayside.
“Without them as a partner to bring in new business, there isn’t any reason to move ahead,” Barenfanger said.