TUPELO — In order to silence the horns and whistles that blare from the trains traveling through Tupelo, the city must first look at spending more than $5 million to make safety improvements at 22 intersections.
Finding a way to improve the quality of life in a city split by railroad tracks isn’t a new development. But city leaders are pushing to find funding sources to tackle a project they say would make railway intersections safer, bring down noise levels and help shorten the time vehicles spend waiting for trains to pass.
During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Mayor Jason Shelton met with federal leaders to discuss the long-proposed development of citywide quiet zones along railroad crossings. Those zones would come following the placing of crossing arms at intersections throughout the city that are unguarded, taking away the need for trains to alert motorists with horns of their upcoming arrival.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s procedures dictate how long and how often trains must sound warning blasts on approach, but those rules can be waived if crossing arm guards prevent vehicle encroachment on tracks. Train crews, however, would still be permitted to sound the horn at any time for safety or emergency reasons.
Shelton prioritized early in his term having a city free of train horns.
“First and foremost, this is a legitimate safety concern we need to look at by securing those crossings to help save lives,” Shelton said. “We would ultimately seek the quiet zone status, which is really more a quality of life issue, but safety comes first.”
For funding and logistic purposes, the plan to make safety improvements at the intersections where BNSF and Kansas City Southern railways travel in the city is broken up into three different phases.
The first phase is estimated to cost $2 million and would make improvements at eight intersections. Improvements at each intersection would cost approximately $330,000.
The second phase would also cost $2 million and include eight intersections. A large portion of the cost would go toward tackling the Crossroads intersection at West Main and North Gloster streets. An estimated 45,000 cars travel through that intersection alone each day. Safety improvements at that intersection alone are estimated at $605,000.
The third phase would cost $1.5 million and cover six intersections.
City officials have met with state and federal leaders attempting to secure funding sources.
The city is planning to apply for funding through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, and Department of Development Services Director Shane Hooper said the city will keep exhausting all funding sources before even considering bringing the proposal back for local funding.
“As long as we have a lead on a funding source, we’re going to go after that,” Hooper said. “But at the same time, we can’t sit around and wait forever because this is an important project for the city.”
Apart from the eventual goal of quieting the city from train horns, Hooper said the safety and economic development impact of not having safe intersections is a real threat to the area.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis, 92 accidents and 32 injuries have been reported at various railway intersections throughout the city since 1969. A total of 10 fatalities have been reported since 1975.
According to a rail study completed in 2013, automobile traffic in 2005 at Crosstown alone experienced a daily total of 210 hours of cumulative delay.
Based on a 250-day work year, drivers experience more than 52,500 hours of delay, which equates to a total annual workday delay cost of $7.8 million. By 2030, that cost is estimated to increase to approximately $25 million annually, with a cumulative cost of $1.25 billion.
While a plan to relocate the train or elevate train tracks over major roadways would eliminate that delay completely, Hooper said those plans are simply not cost-effective with estimates reaching nearly half a billion dollars.
Improving safety conditions at the intersections, Hooper said, would eventually allow the trains to travel 5 mph to 10 mph faster, which would cut down on the time motorists have to wait at the intersections.
“We can assure people the trains aren’t going to be traveling 100 mph through town just because we secure all the intersections,” Hooper said. “And while that 5 to 10 mph might not seem like a lot, it adds up over time.”
While the safety of motorists is the top priority in the project for city leaders, the additional benefits that come from having safe intersections and quiet zones throughout the city are an added plus.
Just ask Richie Alvarez, FNB Tupelo branch director, if he’s ready to be rid of the train’s horn.
“If we have customers or we’re on a conference call and the train goes by, we just have to stop everything,” Alvarez said. “It just gets annoying after a while.”
Alvarez is one of several business officials the city reached out to for a letter of support for the project as a part of preparing its grant application.
His South Commerce Street employees and customers are no strangers to halting business for a few minutes while the train passes.
“Trying to do business and talk to people when the train is coming by is just hard,” he said.
Having the support of local businesses, residents and other members of the community shows the importance of the project for the city.
“This is something we’ve been looking at for a while, but that’s because it’s a worthwhile goal,” Shelton said. “This is something we’re going to continue because there are a tremendous amount of benefits for everyone.”
— ROD GUAJARDO, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
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