EATON — Preble County Commissioners met with representatives of Norfolk Southern Railroad on Monday, March 21, with county, municipal, National Trail Local School district officials, and others in attendance.
William Miller from Norfolk Southern returned to provide the county with some updates on plans for potential crossing closures the railroad first announced late last year.
“We’re back this afternoon to try to give some updates,” Miller began. “To talk about how our project has changed a little bit since we met last time. And again, just ask for continued support from the county as we really approach the beginning of this project which will extend the siding currently between Campbellstown and what I call Conley Road.”
He continued, “When we first met, we had talked about the limits of this project and the desire to remove all the crossings within those limits. And we heard everybody loud and clear. I don’t know how many people in the room were at the meeting last time. But since then, it has changed a little bit, where we no longer really have the need to close Toby Road because the limits have shifted to the west a little bit.
“We’ve done traffic study since we’ve met before. We’ve talked to some companies that specialize in what they call dynamic messaging signs. We have a package put together from them to share with you,” Miller added. “And to talk about Campbellstown and the situation there with those two crossings. This project will remove the double track from those two crossings at Campbellstown that have been a reason for a train to be stopped there. I know that’s been an issue that’s going on for some time.
Matthew Dietrich, Executive Director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission was also in attendance.
“If there’s closures involved, if the community voluntarily closes a crossing, there could be some federal funding available for any of the improvements that the community might need to facilitate that closure, or to deal with any of the other great crossing issues in question and safety issues in the county,” Dietrich said. “If there’s a voluntary closure by the community, then the State of Ohio and the federal government, we’re allowed to use federal highway safety funds for other improvements. That’s through a voluntary process. If it is a mandatory process where say there’s a crossing and the railroad says ‘we’re going to close this’ and the county says ‘we’re opposed to it’. They can go to the PUCO and petition for closure. It is basically going to court — it’s just kind of a regulatory court.”
“We’re still looking for support to close Daily Road and Conley Road,” Miller said. “Obviously again, we heard everybody loud and clear that Oxford Gettysburg is the most used crossing there, and very important. Our traffic study that we had an outside agency do confirmed that. I mean, there was a higher vehicle count there than anywhere else. I want to say Conley was in the teens for traffic count. And as I recall, Daily Road was like 250 cars a day.”
“We understand this project is going to change things. I mean, it’s going to change things really, one way or the other,” Miller added. He explained, the Norfolk Southern is proposing large signs at four locations to let drivers know if there’s a train at the crossing or not before they head down the road.
“My goal is to leave here today just kind of knowing, are we going to be able to work on this together?” Miller said. “Or is there just no interest in the county in taking an incentive package for the two closures and, you know, letting us do the sign package. I mean, they’re going to turn dirt most likely this summer on this project. So regardless of what you do, it’s going to be a better situation at Campbellstown, because that’s going to happen. Regardless, they’re going to take up the double track and that will improve that situation. But, we know the trains will be held in here regularly, at least a couple of times a day. And we would much rather get those crossings out, maybe mitigate some of the frustrations that are going to come out with trains blocking those two crossings.”
All the proposed signs will be directed to keep people off of Oxford-Gettysburg when a train is there, according to Miller.
Sheriff Mike Simpson was among those present voicing his concerns.
“I think one of the biggest issues is the lack of staffing that you have, because these trains are being parked right now in Campbellstown for days at a time,” Simpson said. “For whatever reason, which I don’t understand, they’ve got time to lock the train, but they don’t have time to break the train. And I don’t understand that philosophy. I don’t know what it takes to break a train time-wise, but yet we’re going to be in the same situation at Oxford-Gettysburg and these other places. To me, the railroad needs to factor that into that 12-hour period with their crews to break that train, because they’ll sit there for two or three days at a time. And to be honest with you, that’s our biggest issue we’re facing now, is that when we go out there because we’ve got crossings blocked, there’s nobody with the train.”
“We call Fort Wayne or whoever,” Simpson continued. “They have no clue when the crew will be there and it’ll sit for a day.”
Construction on the project will “probably” start this summer, according to Miller, “and it will be finished either next summer or a little bit after,” he told officials in the meeting.
“It’s not going to give us any solid way of moving our buses around in a timely fashion without some issue being created,” National Trail Superintendent Bob Fischer said of the closures and project.
Much discussion regarding the project and what it would mean to the community, the school district, and others was held during the nearly two-hour discussion. Topics covered ranged from current issues, train lengths, funding and potential projects like turnarounds and others to mitigate the problems caused by stopped trains.
“You know, we have a gun to our head where it’s, we voluntarily close these and you get what you want. Or we say no, we don’t want these closed, and it goes through PUCO. And we have now cut ourselves off for a considerable pool of funding to alleviate some of the processes for problems this this is going to create,” Engineer Kyle Cross said. “So I mean, we’re the ones locally here, whether it be myself, the commissioners, the school, whoever — it’s pretty much you can come in and say, ‘voluntarily close these or we will get them closed because you don’t have to traffic counts to justify slowing us down and keeping them open. And if you don’t take our route with it, then you’re going to have to figure out how to fund every improvement that this creates on your own.’’
After more than an hour of listening to the railroad’s information and the discussion, Preble County Prosecutor Marty Votel wanted to know if what was being said by Norfolk Southern was the railroad company’s actual offer.
“My goal was to walk away with this from this meeting with an understanding of where we stand legally,” Votel said. “And I think Kyle (Cross) summarized accurately how these things work. We either reach a voluntary closure of those intersections or the railroad’s guaranteed to file a complaint with PUCO, after which you know, case law indicates that the railroad’s likely success is great. So we’re here talking to each other trying to see if we can do it the voluntary route and the advantage of that is the availability of federal funds and perhaps some funds from the railroad itself as alluded to from our first meeting. But when it comes to my advising my client as a prosecuting attorney, I have no role in policy making. I have a role in providing legal advocacy. My interest in my client is that when they make a decision whether to voluntarily close these intersections or not, that can be an informed one, and so if they’re going to turn down an offer from the railroad, in my judgment, the offer ought to be a concrete one.”
“The thing that I’ve been looking for this past hour and 15 minutes is, is there a written, plenary, concrete proposal from the railroad that we can accept or reject, because not to be flippant, but I’m hearing ‘Hey, we want to close these roads. How about it?’ I mean, that’s kind of the offer I’m hearing. Is there anything more concrete?” Votel went on to ask if the communication last Monday was really the railroad’s solicitation of a counter offer.
“I see this meeting more as a this is an update how the project has changed,” Miller responded. “I was hoping it would be seen as a change for the better. We’re asking for one, really, less closures but we want some kind of indication on whether we can reach an agreement or not.”
“You said dirt’s turning over in the summer — you would go ahead full force with this project without an agreement to close those crossings. Is that what you’re saying?” Votel asked.
“Yes, sir,” Miller said. “The project’s moving ahead.
“So at this point, the ask is for us is to assemble our list,” Commissioner Rachael Vonderhaar noted.
“I think that would probably be the best,” Miller said. “And then once we have that together, and we’re good on all that stuff. We put it in a MOU (memorandum of understanding) and then an agreement later on. I’m not going to make any promises, but I would say compile your list. And I don’t want to say that we’re going over the top of what we’re already proposing, but we’re, you know, we’re certainly coming to the table. We’ve listened to some concerns. We did our best to lay something out that might mitigate some of those concerns. We have cash in the budget. Let us know what else there is. I just can’t make any promises.”
Norfolk Southern would like to have the county’s list of requests with the next two months, according to Miller.