Efforts to keep railroads from blocking street crossings should focus on Congress, participants at a Northwest Indiana Rail Crossing Task Force meeting said.
State legislation will almost certainly be overruled by courts, and federal agencies that regulate railroads have been ineffective, officials agreed.
“It seems to me our last alternative is lobbying (Congress),” Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., the task force chairman, said at the group’s meeting Monday.
McDermott had prompted the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission to create the task force last year. He said delays caused by trains blocking Hammond crossings had increased since the Indiana Supreme Court threw out a state law that allowed cities to issue fines to railroads for doing that.
State Rep. Carolyn Jackson, D-Hammond, sponsored a bill this year seeking to force railroads to explain when a crossing was blocked more than 10 minutes, but that bill didn’t get a hearing.
Even if passed, NIRPC attorney David Hollenbeck said, it would run into the same problem that the previous law did, because federal regulations on railroads pre-empt state laws.
Hollenbeck’s analysis also showed that the federal Surface Transportation Board is unlikely to act. That board investigated problems with crossing blockages in the Chicago area a few years ago and acknowledged there was a problem, but declined to take action.
Congress, though, could pass a law overturning the pre-emption doctrine, Hollenbeck said.
“That’s where I expect the action will be,” he said.
Tony Ferraro, regional director for U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said he’d relay the task force concerns to Braun, who he said would “take a real hard look” at the issue.
Mark Lopez, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, agreed with Hollenbeck that federal regulators don’t have enforcement power over crossing blockages. He suggested also contacting U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis, who sits on a transportation committee.
Lopez said more data on the issue would help Congress get a grasp of the problem.
NIRPC already has information showing that about half of the region’s schools, fire stations and hospitals sit within half a mile of a railroad crossing. Of the region’s 1,086 crossings, 82 percent are at-grade – on the same level as streets and roads.
William Moore, a consultant who previously worked for two railroads, suggested that more people do what he has done: gather information whenever a railroad crossing is blocked.
On his own time, Moore collected data at 39 Northwest Indiana crossings for about five weeks recently, and found blockages at 13 of them.
Eight of those were at the 20 Hammond crossings he watched.
The longest blockage he saw, at the Indiana Harbor Belt crossing on Michigan Avenue in East Chicago on Feb. 25, lasted 104 minutes.
A crossing is blocked, Moore said, when its gates are down for more than 10 minutes, whether or not a train is going through the entire time.
“This is just a small snapshot,” Moore said of his report, “but it begins to paint a picture of what’s happening at these crossings.”
He said anyone who wants to help gather information on crossing blockages can email him at email@example.com, and he’ll send a smart phone app.
Tim Zorn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.