Lawmaker: State unlikely to take up Atlanta’s grade crossing request

(The Center Square) — Atlanta officials want state lawmakers to punish railroads for blocking grade crossings, but a leading state lawmaker says there is nothing the state can do.

The Atlanta City Council’s Transportation Committee passed a measure to advocate for punishing railroads that block grade crossings for prolonged periods. The measure, which the city council will consider the measure during its Aug. 7 meeting, calls on the Georgia General Assembly and Congress to pass legislation limiting how long freight trains can block a grade crossing.

However, state Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, chairman of the state House Committee on Transportation, said there isn’t much the state can do as the matter falls under the federal government’s jurisdiction.

“It’s an issue we know is there,” Jasperse told The Center Square. “We know the railroads — both CSX and Norfolk Southern — know it’s an issue. It’s just a symptom … of how [well] our state is growing, and we have not been able to keep up with — because the funding’s not there — to provide rail crossings where we can.”

The Georgia House added $2.3 million to this year’s budget for a siding extension in Henry County. The funding was removed before lawmakers approved the final budget.

Communities nationwide have expressed exasperation with blocked crossings. Ohio, for example, has taken a case involving its state law to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last August, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state could not punish railroads for blocking crossings.

“Keeping trains moving is fundamental to the rail business, and a stopped train is not good for our communities or our customers,” Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek told The Center Square via email. “That’s why railroads deploy a variety of strategies depending on the circumstance to minimize the frequency of blocked crossings, mitigate community impacts and respond when crossings are blocked.”

Benjamin Dierker, the executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, said such approaches could have unintended consequences.

“Trains stop for a number of reasons, including to handle maintenance or address potential issues that arise during operation,” Dierker told The Center Square via email. “If a train has only one or two crew members, they may have to walk the length of the train to inspect or even fix an issue. Some trains also stop before entering a rail yard or if another train is ahead on the tracks or siding track ahead is not available.

“Keeping trains moving is fundamental to the rail business, and a stopped train is not good for our communities or our customers,” Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek told The Center Square via email. “That’s why railroads deploy a variety of strategies depending on the circumstance to minimize the frequency of blocked crossings, mitigate community impacts and respond when crossings are blocked.”

Benjamin Dierker, the executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, said such approaches could have unintended consequences.

“Trains stop for a number of reasons, including to handle maintenance or address potential issues that arise during operation,” Dierker told The Center Square via email. “If a train has only one or two crew members, they may have to walk the length of the train to inspect or even fix an issue. Some trains also stop before entering a rail yard or if another train is ahead on the tracks or siding track ahead is not available.

“This policy may end up penalizing certain good activities — for instance, the East Palestine derailment involved an overheated wheel bearing, and if sensors indicate that is occurring, the engineer will stop the train as soon as possible,” Dierker added. “If stopping ends up blocking a crossing, it may be better that the train stopped to inspect or address an issue than to potentially derail. While hypothetical, many similar events could be conceived, which simply raises more questions about how the policy would work in practice.”

By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor

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