Editorial: Keep trains, traffic rolling

The best way to fix the problem of traffic jams caused by stopped trains in Garden City is through creativity and cooperation, not confrontation and certainly not through the passage of punitive laws that likely would be a waste of time and probably not do much to change the situation.

 

That said, it’s understandable that many residents of Garden City and other areas of west Chatham County have reached their boiling points over stopped trains that frequently block traffic in and around Garden City and near Savannah’s booming port.

According to some residents, these trains have caused people to be late to work, to school, to funerals and to important appointments. They also are hurting westside businesses who literally are on the wrong side of the tracks as stopped trains are blocking customer access.

The public safety concerns are obvious as well. Stopped or snarled traffic prevents police, fire trucks and ambulances from quickly responding to emergencies.

It’s not that the railroad that operates many of these trains, the Jacksonville-based CSX Corp., isn’t sympathetic. Instead, the problem seems to be one of limited options.

To a large degree, the train problem is an unwanted byproduct of the success of the state-run port.

As more of the containers that flow into and out of the port are moved by rail instead of by truck, the pressure is on the Georgia Ports Authority to move these containers more efficiently and with less disruption to the public.

 

GPA’s New Mega Rail Terminal should help

Toward that end, the GPA on Monday approved $42.27 million toward the construction of the port’s $128 million Mason Mega Rail Terminal that will double the port’s on-dock rail capacity to a whopping 1 million containers per year. So far, $90.7 million has been allocated toward the rail terminal, which is designed to reduce truck congestion on area roads and to eliminate or significantly reduce rail crossings in and around the port. Unfortunately, the project isn’t scheduled for completion until the end of 2020, which means several more years of stalled traffic and businesses and neighborhoods that must endure being cut off by trains.

CSX representatives say they are working to improve operations in the area.

Still, some residents who say they “feel like prisoners in their own homes” have taken matters into their own hands, driving around their neighborhoods looking for alternative ways to cross over the railroad tracks. That is a dangerous option that should be discouraged, as these unofficial and unmarked crossings could contribute to a serious accident.

However, if local road planners can safely design and build new roads to prevent residents of westside neighborhoods from being held hostage by a stopped train, then they should proceed.

The option of building more flyovers also exists but that is an expensive choice and public transportation money is scarce. Complicating matters are the feelings of local voters who don’t have any stomach to pay for traffic relief. For example, in 2012, Chatham County voters overwhelmingly rejected (57-percent “no”) a proposal to hike local sales taxes to help pay for a railroad overpass east of Savannah at a crossing on East President Street, a common bottleneck.

The city imposes fines of up to $500 on railroads whose trains block traffic for up to 10 minutes during rush hour periods. But to most railroads, such a fine is simply the cost of doing business and doesn’t serve as much of a deterrent, especially in cases where the rail yard is compact and there is limited space to switch cars. Hence, the only way the trains can roll is to inconvenience motorists.

Thus, the problem of snarled traffic is largely a product of flawed design. Fortunately, the GPA is playing catch-up with the construction of its Mason Mega Rail Terminal, which can’t come soon enough.

Building costly railroad overpasses may not be feasible at this point, but constructing additional roads to relieve some neighborhoods might by an option. And there may be other alternatives. That’s why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and to stay respectful.

Toward that end, Garden City Mayor Don Bethune has requested a meeting with representatives of CSX to discuss what can be done. Let’s hope that meeting bears fruit as everyone should strive to be good neighbors and look for solutions instead of confrontations. Talk about going to the Georgia Legislature to impose a statewide fix for a local problem should be sidetracked for now.

“It is important for everyone to understand that the two large railroads that operate in Garden City have been in existence for over 100 years,” the mayor said. That’s an important point.

If someone chooses to live in a house or operate a business that could be cut off by a stopped train, then the railroads can’t be faulted for those personal decisions.

However, the railroads and the port should know that stopped trains are bad for their business, too. Time is money in the shipping business.

Hence it’s in everyone’s interest to keep the trains and the traffic rolling. Local officials along with railroad and ports officials should work to craft solutions that allow the growing port, an important driver for Georgia’s economy, to operate as efficiently as possible while reducing headaches for motorists and public safety concerns.

More

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 11:16pm

Streeter Cartoon: Monster Mashers

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 11:11pm

Editorial: Protect Underground Savannah