Natalyn Bates Morris felt a call to action after she missed her niece’s funeral.
The Garden City resident left home nearly an hour early to attend the service. But then, just a few yards from her house, Morris came across a stalled train, which blocked her street for more than two hours, completely cutting off access to and from her neighborhood and forcing her to miss the funeral completely.
“Finally, I just got out of the car and went back home,” Morris said. “That happened a couple of Saturdays ago. A couple of weeks before that, it blocked us for two hours on a Sunday evening. It makes the kids late going to school, and me and other people who live back there can’t get to work on time. It’s like you’re a prisoner in your home.”
Since that time, Morris has become one of many residents and business owners in the small town of Garden City to face off against one of the largest railroad companies in the country in an effort to improve their own safety and quality of life.
And like Morris, many of those living and working along the CSX Corp. rail line in the city say the Jacksonville transportation company’s trains have been shutting down traffic on either side of the tracks for miles, blocking off access to homes and businesses for several hours, sometimes multiple times per day.
It’s now been several months, and the residents say they’re being regularly delayed as they make their way to doctor’s appointments, church services, work and school. The businesses, meanwhile, say they are losing customers who are either unwilling or unable to wait through an hours-long delay.
Asked to comment on these complaints, CSX representatives provided a prepared statement in which they acknowledged there could be “challenges” and said they are working to improve operations in the area.
“CSX strives to be a good neighbor in communities where we operate,” reads the statement attributed to CSX Spokesperson Rob Doolittle. “While we work to serve the growing Port of Savannah as efficiently as possible, we understand the challenges that exist there and we continue working to minimize the impact of our operations in that area. We are also keeping an open line of communication with local leaders and businesses, and using their feedback to improve our operating plan.”
But those affected by the delays refute the CSX spokesperson’s claims that the company has been communicative.
Morris said calls to the phone number posted on the crossing directed her to a website, she said, and even attempts to have Garden City police intervene on the public’s behalf failed to get the trains moving.
In a nearby neighborhood called The Oaks, residents registered similar complaints. One of several residents to gather in a neighbor’s home recently to discuss the matter, Lori Laken said the trains now block her community multiple times per week. She added that CSX detectives patrol a railroad-owned access easement and threaten to cite or arrest any area residents who attempt to use the route to bypass a blockage. Laken said it’s enough to make someone feel like a hostage.
So far, fellow Oaks resident Larry Kent said, these communities still feel fortunate because the blocked intersections haven’t yet resulted in an injury or death. But, he added, it’s only a matter of time.
“What happens if there’s a fire, or someone needs an ambulance or police?” Kent said. “Does someone have to die for them to do something?”
For Garden City’s businesses, the situation is similarly infuriating.
At Jarrell’s Top Dollar Recycling on Tremont Road, the company has been paying overtime daily to its employees who are blocked from leaving work, Nico Berlin said, and those costs don’t even include the amount lost when customers decide they don’t want to wait anywhere from 50 minutes to two hours for a train to pass.
In the past three of four months, Michael Jarrell Jr. added, trains have blocked traffic an average of five hours of each eight-hour work day, leaving some 20 businesses completely locked down.
Addressing the concerned citizens at the Garden City City Council meeting Monday, Mayor Don Bethune said there are plans in place to expand rail capacity on the Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City Terminal, which should make most of the road blockages a thing of the past. But that project is isn’t due for completion for several years, the mayor said, so he’s requested a meeting with representatives of CSX to discuss what can be done in the meantime.
“It is important for everyone to understand that the two large railroads that operate in Garden City have been existence for over 100 years, and within that period have become extremely powerful at the local, state and federal level,” the mayor said at the meeting Monday. “As such, the city of Garden City can only do so much to persuade or plead with them to be more mindful and respectful of our citizens and businesses. … Garden City has been thrust into a difficult situation in which we have little authority.”
He told residents who attended the council’s meeting Monday he expected the meeting with CSX to take place within the next 10 days. As of Friday, however, the meeting wasn’t scheduled.
Bethune said if the meeting doesn’t happen, it may be up to his small town to push for state legislation to address the problem, as previous attempts by Garden City residents to get assistance from the federal government have been unsuccessful.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter’s office wrote to city officials that the problems with the railroad are within Garden City’s jurisdiction.
In letters sent to Garden City Manager Ron Feldner last month, Carter attached correspondence from Karl Alexy, a representative of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, who wrote that the federal transportation agency can only encourage “railroads to work with communities to minimize disruptions to road traffic.”
Alexy’s letter did indicate, however, that states can regulate the length of time a train sits on its tracks and that’s something Georgia Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City, said he’ll be taking up in the upcoming legislative session. A member of the Georgia House of Representatives’ Transportation Committee, Gilliard said at the Council meeting this Monday he intended to file local legislation to address the matter during a trip to Atlanta on Friday.
“I’m 100 percent with the residents,” Gilliard said. “I will propose local legislation to apply pressure on the means of how the railroads operate … to let them know they cannot have those trains sitting idly. It’s a detriment that CSX has not paid viable attention to the residents of Garden City. … If we stick together, we’ll be able to push this thing through.”