Wrong Track

City to appeal and maybe litigate decision to close isthmus rail crossings

This siding feeds the MG&E coal plant on south Livingston Street. The utility is also opposed to the closing of the rail crossings.

The only people that may be happy about the decision by State Commissioner of Railroads Jeff Plale to close two isthmus rail crossings was Wisconsin & Southern Railroad which operates the tracks, and Union Pacific Railroad which owns them.

For everyone in the City who travels, lives, or works near this 1.06 mile stretch of track, it was a nonsensical decision for Plale to also close Brearly Street after earlier this year Hearing Examiner Douglas S. Wood had recommended only closing Livingston Street. 

City of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and State Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) held a press conference on Wednesday (September 19) to denounce the ruling, with Soglin calling it “…so illogical, it doesn’t make sense” according to The Daily Page.

Plale contends that there hasn’t been a serious accident in nearly 40 years but the potential is there and the closings address that. Opponents of the decision say that the low accident rate proves no changes need to be made.¬†Both Wood and Plale noted the safety benefit of installing crossing gates (there used to be gates at most crossings in the corridor) was minimal when compared to their cost.

The ruling noted that cost of gates and lights far outweigh the minimal safety benefit. That notion was disputed by the Mayor.

Many dispute this assertion, including Soglin and Taylor who said that this was more about the railroads wanting the trains to go faster. However, they both noted that the trains already have to slow in urban areas and so the increase in speed is also minimal.

“The benefit is minimal; the burden is substantial,” said Taylor, whose district includes the area. “There seems to be no reason to close the streets other than the trains want to go faster.”

Local residents wonder what impact the closures will have on their normal routines. As the ruling stands right now the streets will be completely closed with no access for even pedestrians or bicycles.

Earlier in the summer the City had won approval to install a pedestrian and maintenance vehicle crossing at Few street for the future Central Park, but Sixth District Alder Marsha Rummel tells Willy Street Blog that the closings will hamper development in the area.

“The thing that really makes you scratch your head…right now a new development is being constructed at Livingston near the railroad, and people will be living there.”

Rummel says that with the new mixed-use office and apartment tower currently being constructed in the 700 block of East Washington Avenue and if a for example a future grocery in 800 block does come to fruition it will generate new pedestrian traffic throughout the area.

“If there were a grocery store there and there were people on that end of the neighborhood…you just kind of wonder, are they going to cross illegally if they are going on foot?” Rummel said. “I’ve asked, and the City will ask them to install a pedestrian crossing if this goes forward. [The ruling mentioned] I requested it, but I don’t think the commissioner recommended that they actually install one.”

At the press conference, Mayor Soglin said the City will ask Commissioner Plale to reconsider his decision, and if he declines, Soglin indicated the City would purse the matter in court.

Related: Full text of Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner’s Decision

Related: Madison to Contest Livingston Rail Crossing Closure

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