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Mobility Committee advances push for safe railroad crossings

Thursday, August 22, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

A long-standing concern with pedestrian and bicycle safety at railroad crossings has earned support from some City Council members, but questions about equity and process may temper hopes of swift improvements.

Since October 2018, both the Bicycle Advisory Council and Pedestrian Advisory Council have passed resolutions calling for safer conditions for bicyclists, pedestrians and wheelchair users at railroad crossings. The advisory councils compiled a list of six particularly hazardous crossings that were brought to their attention by committee members and the general public, an approach that Council Member Jimmy Flannigan deemed undemocratic at Wednesday’s meeting of the Mobility Committee.

“Neither of these committees are appointed by the Council and so they are not geographically representative,” Flannigan said. “I don’t have a (District 6) person on these councils and crowdsourcing is not how we do business.”

While he supported the push for safety improvements as a whole, Flannigan said he couldn’t vote for the resolution if Council Member Ann Kitchen followed through with her intention of bringing it to Council in its current form with a predetermined list of locations.

Kitchen said the six crossings are intended to be a starting point that can be added to or modified as city staffers consider existing projects and priorities. Although not final, the list is useful as a collection of known hazardous crossings, she said.

Among other issues, Kathryn Flowers, chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council, said many of the identified crossings converge at acute angles, causing issues for the narrow wheels of bicycles, wheelchairs or scooters that may slip into or become wedged in the spaces around the tracks. Combined with inclement weather, she said, some of the worst crossings cannot safely be traversed.

Local bicycle advocate Tommy Eden said two of the identified crossings, one at Vinson Drive near St. Elmo Road and another at West Mary Street near Bouldin Creek, were marked as safety issues by the Bicycle Advisory Council as early as 1998. Similarly, he said, requests for a perpendicular railroad crossing at Rosewood Avenue near the Pleasant Valley underpass have yet to be addressed.

Public Works Director Richard Mendoza said the city has evaluated and prioritized seven railroad crossings that overlap with sidewalk projects under the 2016 Mobility Bond and the city’s Sidewalk Master Plan. Based on the city’s evaluations, he said the six listed in the resolution range in priority from medium to very high and pose a variety of design challenges.

Among those challenges is the need for cooperation with the owners of the railroad right of way and the federal government. Even in cases where right of way and funding is available, Eden said the requirement for federal approval to make changes to railroad crossings has been a major obstacle.

“Going forward we are going to continue on our program and we really invite working with the (Pedestrian Advisory Council) and the (Bicycle Advisory Council) on whatever specific concerns they might have on certain locations as we proceed with the implementation of the bond sidewalk program,” Mendoza said.

Kitchen said she plans to bring a resolution to Council to work toward language that addresses the safety issues at the identified locations as well as the need for equitable geographical representation.

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