All of those attending a work session of the Vandalia City Council on Monday night agreed that there is a need for safety improvements at the city’s Sixth Street rail crossing.
But they did not agree on how that could be accomplished.
After hearing from a number of local residents, state officials who presented their proposal to improve the Sixth Street crossing – the site of an accident last October that killed four Greenville family members – agreed to drop that proposal and start from scratch in developing a plan.
“From what I heard tonight, everything’s back on the table,” said Mike Stead, administrator of the Illinois Commerce Commission’s Railroad Safety Program.
“We’re back to square one. We’ll have to go back and relook at this,” Stead said.
“Clearly, we missed the mark (with the proposed plan for improvements),” he said.
Stead and Jason Johnson of the Illinois Department of Transportation presented that proposal, which included both a “one-way couple” for Fifth and Sixth streets between Gallatin and Randolph streets, and closing Main Street to traffic between Fifth and Eighth streets.
That “one-way couple” plan had traffic going north only on Sixth Street and south only on Fifth Street in the three-block area of Vandalia’s downtown.
Stead said that this proposal was “tentatively agreed to” at a meeting several weeks ago that included representatives from various entities, including ICC, IDOT and CSX Railroad, and Mayor Rick Gottman.
Making these changes, Stead said, “would be a significant improvement over what we have (now).”
But local residents disagreed with that comment, saying that the proposal is much more than what’s needed to help prevent accidents like the one that occurred a short time prior to Vandalia’s Halloween parade.
Dennis Grubaugh said, “All you need is another gate on Sixth Street,” suggesting another crossing gate for southbound traffic at that crossing.
In response, Stead said that the issue with putting in an additional gate, just north of the tracks, is the railroad siting for a connection with the local rail service.
“We have to design for worse-case (situations), with trains on both tracks,” Stead said.
“With Main Street, from our standpoint, we still have the challenge of trying to provide warning (to motorists). We can’t ensure that motorists will obey warning signs.
“Flashing light signals are not significant, in our opinion. One-way traffic on Sixth Street would be the best option,” Stead said early on in meeting, which last one hour and 45 minutes.
Alderman B. John Clark was among those speaking who disagreed with the concept of implementing one-way traffic.
“I can’t see making it one-way is going to be any better,” Clark said.
Mayor Rick Gottman, Alderman Jerry Swarm and Fire Chief Keith Meadows agreed, specifically talking about Fifth Street. All three explained that emergency vehicles, specifically fire trucks, use Fifth Street as the main route for calls north of the downtown, and that forcing them to use Sixth Street could cause significant issues, including delays in response times.
Johnson said that IDOT “basically concurs with the ICC, at least on Sixth Street (one-way traffic),” stating that ultimately, there would be no need to make Fifth Street a one-way road.
Adding another gate for southbound traffic at Sixth Street, Johnson said, could cause motorists “to get confused on which track (the main track or sighting) a train is on. That’s the big complicating factor.
“The department feels that if you don’t (make them one-way and close Main Street), you going to start compromising the remedies,” Johnson said.
In response to that, Alderman Mike Hobler said, “How do you fix an accident. We’re solving an accident – you can’t solve an accident.”
Tim Michel, owner of Michel Foods, located at Fifth and Main street, agreed that what happened on Oct. 30 was an accident.
“People are going to make bad decisions, they are going to make mistakes,” Michel said, adding that if the agencies were serious about helping to prevent accidents by addressing train speed through town.
“If we’re really serious, we can slow them down,” Michel said.
Jennifer Manley, who said she was at the crossing when the accident occurred, agreed with Michel about motorists making accidents.
Manley said that the crossing at Main and Sixth street came down after the driver of the van had passed it, and that the driver “panicked.”
The driver backed up to the crossing arm, then pulled forward onto the tracks.
“There was room for the mother to turn onto Main Street,” Manley said.
Manley suggested that when there are special events downtown, such as the Halloween parade, police officers be present to direct traffic.
Stead said early in the meeting that the estimated cost of the changes would total $750,000-$800,000, and Johnson later said that $600,000 has been set aside for changes on both Fifth and Sixth streets.
Gottman asked, “Could you use it all for Sixth Street?”
“I would have to take that back to my supervisor,” Johnson said.
Stead said that adding another crossing gate would add $300,000 to the project.
Fayette County Coroner Bruce Bowen, who investigated the Oct. 30 accident, said, “We haven’t had so many accidents to warrant this over-thinking.
“This is over-thought and over-reacting,” he said.
“This one-way nonsense is the biggest pile of garbage I heard tonight,” Bowen said.
Along with Michel, Jody Osborne, owner of Tiger Lily Flower and Gift Shop, talked about how making the two streets one-way would negatively impact their businesses.
“It’s definitely going to affect my business,” Osborne said.
“I don’t think you’re realizing the impact you’re going to have on the businesses,” she said.
Later in the meeting, Johnson responded to such comments.
“My job is to purely have a safety interest and (address) cost-effectiveness. A lot of the interests (being mentioned) are economic.
“I understand that, but as a safety engineer, I see those as possible safety compromises,” Johnson said.
Andy Craig was also among those recommending the installation of a crossing gate for southbound traffic on Sixth, and keeping the one currently installed just north of Main Street.
“One more gate would have probably eliminated that situation (accident),” Craig said.
As to motorists being confused as to which track a train is on, Craig said that that is not an issue.
One reason is that trains off the rural line sighting are “traveling at a walking pace,” and another is that when a train is coming off of the sighting, there is a train on the main track, blocking the crossing.
Craig, like Manley, suggested having the city to certain measures, such as blocking off Fifth and Sixth streets on the night of the Halloween parade.
About an hour into the meeting, Stead conceded that the proposal presented at the meeting was not being well-received, and that the ICC would not take any action that’s not agreed upon by the city.
“We have to go back and do our homework, and come up with other recommendations, based on sound engineering practices,” Stead said.