Tangipahoa opposes DOTD plan to close 3 more rail crossings

In a move that rankled Tangipahoa Parish officials, state Department of Transportation and Development officials said Thursday they will permanently close three railroad crossings in the parish by the end of next week.

The Babb Street, Capace Road and Rev. J. White Road railroad crossings, which are all along the north-south U.S. 51 rail corridor, will be closed because there are other crossings nearby with “increased safety mechanisms,” a DOTD news release says.

DOTD officials said sending drivers to the nearby crossings with better safety equipment will reduce the potential for collisions with railroad traffic.

Drivers will need to cross the railroad tracks at different locations once the crossings are closed down, the DOTD release says.

Babb Street is located in the village of Tangipahoa, while Capace Road and Rev. J. White Road lie just outside Independence.

While Tangipahoa Parish officials have met repeatedly about safety concerns at the railroad crossings, they have fought closing the crossings ever since DOTD sent letters to Tangipahoa authorities in 2005 about shutting down several railroad crossings in the parish.

Parish President Gordon Burgess said he plans to put an item on the Parish Council’s Monday night meeting agenda to discuss the crossing closures.

“I was hoping I could work out the situation with those crossings, but evidently they notified the media instead of the parish government (about the closings),” Burgess said.

Jodi Conachen, a DOTD spokeswoman, said parish officials recently had requested a DOTD panel review the safety mechanisms at the crossings.

The panel recommended shutting down all three, Conachen said. She said parish officials were sent a letter about that recommendation this week.

Conachen also said DOTD hosted a series of public meetings about the issue.

Deadly car-train collisions have occurred at all three crossings since 2005, Federal Railroad Administration records show.

Two people died at the Rev. J. White Road grade crossing in February 2005, records show. One was killed at the Babb Street crossing in September 2008, as were three people in a January 1992 collision at Babb.

The Capace Road crossing came under particular fire in June 2010 when a pregnant woman and her three young siblings died when a train struck their van at the crossing, two years after state officials again recommended closing it.

Burgess said the signage has been improved at the railroad crossings and that parish officials have worked to keep the roadways cleared and warn drivers about being safe.

“We’ve done everything we can do,” he said.

Conachen said DOTD hasn’t seen enough of an improvement in safety mechanisms at the crossings, and that the roads in the area are deteriorated, which creates a further safety risk.

“The alternative crossings, some of them are signalized,” she said. “They all have better visibility and more crossing lanes.”

But Parish Councilman Carlo Bruno, of Independence, said diverting more vehicular traffic to fewer crossings would increase the chances of accidents.

Bruno said council members met with DOTD officials about three or four months ago about the crossings and that he and other members thought the issue had been laid to rest.

Bruno said he’s ready to fight the latest measure in court.

“It’s a real tragedy when anybody loses their life, but the thing is, the tracks are not changing,” he said. “The tracks have been there for hundreds of years.”

Councilman Louis Nick Joseph, who represents the area where the Capace Road crossing is located, said many of the residents who live across the tracks are poor, elderly and minority residents who do not have the means to get to a hospital during a medical emergency.

He said they rely on emergency personnel to transport them to hospitals — but the transport will take longer with these crossings shut down.

“You will have a backlog at those intersections,” he said.

Conachen said DOTD officials examined hospital driving distances and determined that the alternative crossings are close enough to the three maligned crossings so that there would not be “any significant difference as far as access.”

Councilman Greg Varnado, of Amite, said the number of accidents at the crossings has been reduced dramatically.

“They don’t base this on facts,” he said of DOTD. “It’s strictly a money issue.”

Conachen said DOTD has seen no adjustment in crash statistics to suggest that the crossings have become safer.