Judge denies Tangipahoa move to reopen 2 RR crossings

— A state court judge on Wednesday denied Tangipahoa Parish’s request to reopen two railroad crossings the state Department of Transportation and Development closed in June.

The parish government had argued that the state did not meet the requirements of a 2012 law change when it sealed off the Capace Road and Rev. J. White Road crossings along U.S. 51 near Independence on June 22 without providing written notice to parish officials and to residents living within 2 miles of the crossing.

The parish requested an injunction requiring the state to repair, reconstruct and reopen the crossings.

However, Chief Judge Robert Morrison, of the 21st Judicial District Court in Amite, said DOTD began the process for closing the crossings before the law was amended and complied with prior law.

The state deemed the crossings, along with the Babb Street crossing in the village of Tangipahoa, to be unsafe following a series of deadly car-train collisions during the past decade and scheduled all three for permanent closure.

Tangipahoa Parish officials testified Wednesday, however, that the state failed to take into account public input on the potential closures, failed to respond to residents’ concerns about emergency response times and failed to notify either the parish or the public before barricading the crossings on June 22.

The Parish Council will discuss whether to appeal the ruling during its meeting Monday, parish attorney Cliff Speed said.

Discussions with the parish about the potential closures began in 1998, with the actual closure process starting in March 2012, said Bill Shrewsberry, a state DOTD highway-rail safety engineer.

Public comments from a May 22, 2012, “open house” meeting were considered, along with information such as crossing signage, train speeds, collisions and alternative route distances, before the state recommended the closures in July 2012, Shrewsberry said.

However, parish officials and residents said they were dissatisfied with the “open house” meeting, where they were told to submit written comments to DOTD officials, rather than voicing their concerns publicly at the meeting.

The parish requested the state’s reconsideration on July 25, and Councilmen Carlo Bruno and Louis Nick Joseph, whose districts include the Capace and White crossings, held a second public forum on Aug. 9.

The August meeting went “100 times better,” Bruno testified, saying he had felt confident that DOTD officials understood the residents’ concerns.

“That was the last I heard about it until it came up again this June, when they closed the crossings,” Bruno said.

The Transportation Department’s reconsideration board met in September and confirmed the need to close the crossings, Chief Engineer Richard Savoie said.

However, Bruno, Joseph and Parish President Gordon Burgess said they did not hear about the state’s final decision until reporters called them on June 20 after receiving a DOTD news release.

Burgess said he eventually received a letter from the state dated June 18.

The crossings were barricaded at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 22, and the roads were pulled up before the Parish Council could meet the following Monday, Bruno said.

Emergency responders also were given no notice, said Dennis Darouse, director of operations for Tangipahoa Parish’s Communications District No. 1, which operates the parish’s 911 service.

“That Monday after the closures, I read it online,” Darouse said. “That was our first notice.”

During a June 25 medical call to Capace Road, Acadian Ambulance service tried to use the Capace Road crossing not knowing it had been closed over the weekend, Amite Fire Chief Bruce Cutrer said.

“It didn’t cost a life in this case,” but it did remove responders’ shortest and quickest route to the scene and underscored the importance of proper notification, Cutrer said.

Judge Morrison said that although he had concerns about the state’s notification process and its “open house” format for public input sessions, he cannot reverse the Transportation Department’s actions for those reasons. The state complied with the law, he said.