February 2009

Safety at the Crossroads: Eliminating Dangerous Roadway and Rail Crossings

by Stuart Lerner

More than a century ago when railroads were becoming the predominant force in land transportation, numerous grade crossings between the existing roadway network and the proposed railroad lines were created with little concern for safety and congestion. The railroad was king, and the potential for faster, cheaper and more comfortable travel far outweighed the possible negatives that came with the construction of a railroad through areas already populated with roadways.

At the time, the headway between trains was great and the volume of vehicular traffic was low enough that there was little cause for concern. Today, however, these railroad grade crossings have become problematic vestiges of the past, especially in more urbanized communities.

The Safety Issue

Traffic and safety, in particular, are the biggest issues at many rail crossings. In densely populated urban and suburban areas, traffic volume tends to be high, so closing through-traffic for even a couple of minutes to allow a train to pass can create severe congestion and bring what’s called the vehicular ”level of service” of the area below an acceptable level. The frustration with congestion and waiting can then lead drivers and pedestrians to try to circumvent the closed railroad gates, with sometimes tragic results.

In 1959, the village of Mineola in Long Island, N.Y., first addressed the problems created by seven railroad grade crossings in the village, six of which were right in the central business district. After considering several options, the village settled on plans to elevate the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) through the village. However, due to a variety of issues, including financial constraints and local objections to the possible disruption construction would cause, plans for the project were eventually shelved.

But in 1982, nine teenagers were killed when they drove their van around a properly functioning crossing gate at one of the most dangerous crossings in the country at the time, bringing them into the path of an oncoming LIRR train. This tragedy was all the impetus the village needed to refocus their attention back to eliminating the grade crossings.

 Coordination, Communication

Managing the process to remove the grade crossings was an arduous task, subject to lots of starts, stops and countless roadblocks. Soon after the tragic accident, an environmental assessment was conducted to determine the best way to address the grade crossings and the potential impacts of the work. Throughout this process, the team also reviewed the many implications raising the roadways or train tracks could have on stakeholders and the community, including costs, schedule, LIRR operations, right-of-way acquisitions, community impacts, safety and security. By 1986, the results of these analyses led the project team to conclude that the LIRR should be depressed through the central business district to eliminate six of the seven grade crossings and elevated over the road for the last crossing, which was where the accident occurred.

By 1990, the design process was under way. However, by that time the country had fallen into an economic recession and the original cost of the project had almost doubled thanks to inflation, which hadn’t been factored into the initial budget. So, the dilemma became how to address the problem at all seven grade crossings given these new budget constraints.

Over the next few years, staff from the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the railroad and design firm, Stantec, held numerous meetings with the public — who were in favor of removing the crossings for safety — to determine how to remove the crossings quickly, efficiently and with the least disturbance.

Once the project team and the community had reached a consensus on how to move forward, the consultants finalized the plans, including elevating the LIRR over Herricks Road, where the 1982 accident had occurred. To be sure trains could continue to run as scheduled throughout construction, the design plan involved installing bypass and three new interlocking tracks to allow trains to run in the reverse direction on one track, if needed. By 1996, construction on this portion of the project was completed successfully, with little significant disruption to LIRR commuters or to the village itself.

Thanks to such success in eliminating the most dangerous crossing, attention then shifted to removing the crossing at Mineola Boulevard, which had fallen into disrepair. For this crossing in the heart of the village, the plan involved constructing a bridge over the LIRR, rather than elevating the tracks over the road as with the Herricks Road effort. By 2000, the new bridge was finished, complete with aesthetic details to match its surroundings, which have made the bridge a landmark in the community and an award winner in the industry.


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