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City to negotiate with UP on rough crossings

Friday, September 21, 2012

Is there a rough railroad crossing in Le Mars you hate to drive across?

Chances are it is headed for some reconstruction work.

At least that's the plan of the Le Mars City Council, which discussed rough railroad crossings Tuesday.

If an agreement can be made with the railroad company Union Pacific (UP), the council would like to see repairs done to crossings at 12th Street Southwest, Central Avenue, Sixth Avenue Southwest and First Street Northeast, possibly in that order.

Councilman John Rexwinkel has been requesting action on rough crossings at each council meeting for much of this year.

Tuesday, City Administrator Scott Langel said he has been working with one UP representative, but that individual moved to a different location within the company, and this caused a delay in addressing Le Mars' rough crossings.

However, Langel is in touch with a new UP representative, Mike Blackley, in Omaha, Neb., and they have begun discussing the crossing problems.

"Mike has been, historically, at least available to get something accomplished," the city administrator said.

Langel explained that, at several intersections, it appears the actual rail is sinking below the level of the pavement, creating a rough surface for vehicles traveling on the road.

Rexwinkel asked if the railroad was responsible for maintaining smooth crossings.

The legality of which party is responsible for the repairs is complicated, according to City Attorney Joe Flannery.

It may be that the railroad company owns the rail itself, but the city may own the pavement up to the rail, he said.

However, the railroad has an easement that requires special permission from UP be given before any work be done within 25 feet of the rail's center line, Langel said.

"Anything 5 1/2 feet from the center line, no one can touch it other than the railroad," he said.

That doesn't mean it's the railroad's legal responsibility to repair that section, Flannery said.

Only railroad-approved contractors can work on that area, city staff explained.

Blackley suggested the cost of improvements near railroad crossings could be shared in one of two ways, Langel said.

First, a city can apply to the state of Iowa for a 60-20-20 cost share, where the state pays 60 percent of the cost and the city and the railroad each pay for 20 percent.

"That program is on a first come, first serve basis," Langel said. "You're put on a list of eligible projects."

Langel confirmed it may be two or three years before the city would get to the top of that list and receive money to fix a crossing.

Le Mars has used that state program to complete a rail crossing project, but it was more than two decades ago, he said.

"We've always had better luck negotiating a contract with the various railroads we're dealing with," Langel said.

Blackley's second option would be a 50/50 cost share between the city and the railroad, Langel said.

The city's portion of a 50/50 cost share might come from the city's general fund, from Road Use Tax, or from Urban Renewal Area dollars, Langel said.

Councilman Ken Nelson said the 50/50 share seems like a reasonable option to get the rough crossings fixed.

"If you look at it, half the damage is probably done by the trains, and half of it is done by the cars," he said.

Langel also told the council there could be a third option to pay for the crossing work.

"Under chapter 384 of the Iowa statute ... the council can special assess improvements to railroad companies," the city administrator said. "I've been around quite a while and we have never exercised that right."

The city has always used the state 60-20-20 program or made an agreement with the railroad, Langel said.

"You may want to make a policy decision that enough is enough," he said. "In addition to death and taxes, I think there is another certain thing in life for Le Mars, Iowa, and that is this railroad. We're going to be dealing with it. It's going to be here forever."

Responding to Langel's suggestion, Nelson noted that "it's nice not to get into an adversarial position" with the railroad because it becomes a battle of more lawyers.

If the city council chooses to go forward with a 50/50 cost share or the state program, the next step would be to get cost estimates for each crossing's work, Langel said.

The city could help cut the costs down somewhat by offering city crews to do traffic control, demolition disposal and other work, Langel said.

Councilman Rex Knapp suggested that the council could rank the crossings in the order the city would like them to be repaired.

"That would give us some idea, and we could plan for it and they could plan for it," he said.

The council agreed on the ranking of the crossing at 12th Street Southwest first, then Central Avenue, then Sixth Street Southwest, then First Street Northeast, which is also shared by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

Councilwoman Delana Ihrke requested that a pedestrian crossing at 12th Street be part of the new agreement with UP.

Nelson said, if the city does forge an agreement with the railroad, part of the city's request should be that UP representatives respond more quickly to city requests.

"I'd like it to be that, when you call them, we have a reasonable expectation that, within two or three months they will react, and we won't have to wait for a year and a half," Nelson said.

Langel suggested to Flannery that Le Mars look into some type of ongoing contract with UP to continue to fix crossings.

Rexwinkel urged Langel to continue to move forward with the negotiations with UP.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Rexwinkel said. "Let's pursue the 50/50 and see what our costs would be."

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