In December 1992, the Mississippi Department of Transportation suggested a way to make railroad crossings on the Coast safer.
It involved having the cities close 54 of the 138 public railroad crossings maintained by CSX Transportation, the Jacksonville, Fla., railroad whose line neatly cleaves the beachfront area from the rest of the three Coast counties it spans.
The state made the suggestions at CSX’s behest. CSX, like many railroads nationwide, is trying to curb the number of railroad-crossing accidents by working with local and state governments to close unnecessary crossings. The state also proposed adding lights or gates to the crossings that would remain.
Nearly three years later, no crossings have been closed. And in those three years, at least 12 people have been killed and 18 injured in railroad-crossing accidents on the Coast.
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What happened? Or, more to the point, what hasn’t happened?
The answers reveal the weight of the bureaucracy that governs the rails. They show why long-range transportation planning on the Coast, even when people’s lives are at stake, often gets bogged down in the morass of delayed initiatives and shallow city coffers.
They also illustrate some residents’ resistance to the inconvenience the closing of crossings would create, even when leaving them open imperils themselves and their neighbors.
Battling in the Bay
By state law, the Department of Transportation has the authority to close any crossing it wants. But it’s reluctant to do so if local sentiment runs against closings.
Such is the case in the continuing question of whether any crossings will be closed in Bay St. Louis.
The city, as part of its deal to acquire the old downtown railroad depot from CSX three years ago, agreed to close four crossings that the railroad thought were repetitive and dangerous, at Agnes, Citizen, Ballentine and St. Charles streets.
Residents got wind of the proposed closings, and many were furious. They said closing the crossings would restrict emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks from reaching homes. Plus, they said, the closings would create a major nuisance for people just trying to get around town.
About 20 people showed up at a City Council meeting in December 1994 and vowed to fight the closings every step of the way. Two of the residents showed council members petitions signed by nearly 100 residents.
MDOT, which has to approve the closing of railroad crossings in the state, demurred. The department would have to hold public hearings before approving any closings, and MDOT officials said the public outcry probably had warded off the possibility of any crossings being closed in Bay St. Louis.
When that happens, or when local officials don’t want crossings closed, CSX grins and bears it.
“It’s the state’s issue,” CSX spokesman Rob Gould said in July. “If they make it clear they won’t close them if there’s opposition, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”
Mayor Eddie Favre understands residents’ worries but says the concerns are out of proportion.
“One of the first things we did was talk to the emergency response people” when the railroad suggested the closings, Favre said. “Our emergency people told us it wouldn’t be a problem.”
You can’t argue with the fact that residents would be inconvenienced, he said, but closing the crossings would make the tracks safer.
Favre plans to send the city’s agreement with CSX to the state and let them start the public hearing process. In December, the City Council voted to ask the state to hold any public hearings on the matter in Bay St. Louis instead of Jackson. Favre thinks the same residents would come out again to protest the closings.
He says the city is hamstrung by the public opposition, and that the crossings will be closed only if CSX and the state take more pains to explain to people how important the closings are to safety.
“To me, what it’s going to come down to is the DOT, and the DOT’s going to have to say, `OK, we’ve got to do this,”’ he said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Ocean Springs Mayor Kevin Alves takes a simple stance toward the state’s proposal to close four of his city’s 10 crossings: Don’t do it.
“In order to close the tracks, you would have to start eliminating evacuation routes, because we’re bounded by the (Mississippi) Sound, with no escape. And to the north, the only hope is to cross the railroad tracks,” Alves said.
“It would just impact us a lot worse than a lot of the other cities ... the impact on traffic would be horrendous.”
The state agrees. “If he says there aren’t going to be any closings, there aren’t going to be any closings,” said Newton McCormick Jr., MDOT’s rail division chief.
McCormick said the state does not exercise its authority to close crossings when local governments don’t want their crossings closed. He said state officials changed their minds about the Ocean Springs proposal when they visited and saw how the closings would worsen traffic.
Plus, the need for closings doesn’t appear great in Ocean Springs. Alves noted that all 10 crossings have warning lights, and half of those have lights and gates.
“We tried to take that extra step in providing some safety at the crossings, even though it was expensive,” McCormick said.
The state and federal governments’ totals on railroad-crossing accidents in Ocean Springs from 1990 through 1994: one accident, one injury, no deaths.
The state plan for Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs involved closing eight crossings. The state recommended that Gulfport and Biloxi close 28.
The stakes rise because Gulfport and Biloxi have more people, more crossings and more accidents than anywhere else on the Coast. Nevertheless, officials in both cities say efforts to close railroad crossings have taken a back seat to other projects.
Transportation planning is particularly tough in Biloxi for an unavoidable reason: It’s a peninsula. Thousands of people use small, overworked streets crammed into the few square miles east of Keesler Air Force Base. The base pinches the peninsula in its center, leaving only a few blocks for U.S. 90, Irish Hill Drive and the CSX tracks, all of which run east-west.
The paucity of outlets makes road planning crucial, said Biloxi Councilman Jim Compton. One of those road projects, the proposed extension of Popp’s Ferry Road to U.S. 90, could include an overpass at the tracks.
Biloxi officials earlier this year decided to spend $185,000 for initial engineering on the project, designed to ease traffic at the intersections of Popp’s Ferry, Pass and Beauvoir roads. Construction won’t begin for at least two years.
Overpass included, the Popp’s Ferry extension would cost $15 million. City officials don’t know yet how they would pay for it.
“The railroad really divides the city and creates snarls,” Compton said. “We need a way to bypass crossings.”
Still, a Popp’s Ferry overpass would give Biloxi motorists — and those in Harrison County, for that matter — only two unimpeded routes over the tracks. Compton thinks Biloxi needs one more, in the east part of town, but that too would cost millions.
“Unless CSX could come up with some financial assistance for alternate roadways,” he said, a third overpass would stand little chance to be built.
That would seem an argument for simply closing the 15 crossings the state recommended. But council members haven’t seriously discussed closing crossings since former Mayor Gerald Blessey’s administration, from 1985 to 1989, said Councilwoman Dianne Harenski: “No one has brought it to anybody’s attention.”
Her suggestion: “I think it would be an excellent project for the cities and counties to do together, maybe close three or four crossings a year.” But that’s just an idea; city and county officials haven’t discussed it.
The east-west problem
Planning major alternate roads, and contemplating their expense, weighs on the minds of Gulfport officials too.
The fate of the big road project they and other Coast governments are concentrating on is tied to that of the railroad: the oft-discussed, never-realized east-west road along the CSX tracks.
Oddly, the plans for a road that, if ever built, would make traffic on the Coast much smoother are helping delay the closing of railroad crossings. Officials in both Gulfport and Biloxi want to wait until planners decide where to put the road and which, if any, crossings would be affected by construction before they close any.
The reason: Better to wait until the road plan is done and match closings with the plan than close crossings now, make traffic worse than it is and possibly have to reopen crossings when it’s time to build the road.
“We’d like to close a lot of them,” said Gulfport Mayor Ken Combs. “But before we close them, we need to improve the access between the ones that would be open when we get everything done.”
The problem with that line of thinking, said Gulfport Councilman Richard Rose: There’s no guarantee the east-west road will ever be built, and the process of planning the road, buying easements and building might take 20 years.
Meanwhile, people continue to get hit on the tracks.
More than two years ago, Gulfport’s city engineer, Scott Burge, outlined a three-part proposal to close 27 of the city’s 34 crossings; the first part alone would close 11. In a memo to the mayor and council members last year, Burge said the city would get financial help from CSX and would not have to spend more than $500 per closing.
But the mayor and council members balked, choosing to wait for the east-west road plan.
“The people over here want to close crossings,” Rose said. “The first phase can be done very easily and not have a negative impact on the east-west corridor project, which may not happen.”
History would seem to back him up. No one disputes that an alternate east-west road is one of Harrison County’s most critical transportation needs.
But the process of advancing the project beyond the realm of the mythic has been agonizingly slow. The east-west road was first proposed in 1974, but a study of the project’s feasibility wasn’t commissioned until January.
Combs suggests an alternative: Coast, state and federal governments could work together to fund the construction of a new rail line north of the interstate.
The railroad would not have to pay a cent, he said: “They have longstanding rights going back to the 1800s, and it’d be impossible to tell them to move.”
It would be impossible to move the line at all, said Ned Boudreaux, executive director of Gulf Regional Planning Commission.
For one thing, the federal Department of Transportation usually proposes $200 million per year for Mississippi in federal surface-transportation money, but after congressional cuts the state usually gets much less.
“I’d love to see the tracks moved. They’re a bottleneck, no question about it,” Boudreaux said. “But any (industrial) spurs, such as the one in Pascagoula, would still have to be provided access. That’s a problem.
“If it would have been done when the feds were pouring money into relocating rails, in the ’50s and ’60s, it would have been feasible. But that lasted about four or five years, then went by the wayside.
“The railroad is not going to move. If you build them a line, they’ll move ... but the resources are just not there.”