Closing rail crossing will not be easy, but will be safer

IT SEEMS THAT WE, as drivers, have to keep learning new things all the time. First, we had to learn how to navigate a roundabout at an intersection after the state Department of Transportation installed them at various places as a safety and traffic control measure.

Then it J-turn intersections and limited crossing intersections along State 23 between Sheboygan Falls and Plymouth that forced us to learn new traffic patterns going north and south of that four-lane highway.

Now, it appears likely that those of us used to going across Plymouth from north to south (or vice versa) in one straight shot along Milwaukee Street will have to learn another way to get from here to there.

That’s because another state agency – this time the office of the railroad commissioner – has ruled that the Milwaukee Street railroad crossing between Western Avenue and Elizabeth Street must be closed.

The rationale is that it is an unsafe crossing, with a difficult grade leading up to it coming from the south, as well as its proximity to Western Avenue creating the potential for unsafe backups and increasing the potential for accidents.

All of that has not been an issue for many years, as the rail line between Plymouth and Elkhart Lake has been largely out of service. But the Wisconsin Southern Railroad is in the process of upgrading the line and has plans to put it back into full service, bringing back all the risks inherent in the rail crossing.

The city can fight the order to close the crossing, but as city officials have pointed out, orders to close crossings around the state have been upheld and implemented nearly 90 percent of the time. That makes the odds of successfully contesting the order to close pretty long.

The city could go along with the order and get funding from the state to help with closing the crossing and modifying the surrounding streets for the new traffic patterns – e.g. putting curb and gutter along Western

Avenue south of the crossing and a berm north of the crossing where Milwaukee Street would dead end.

Or it could fight to keep the crossing, be successful, and have to pay for safety upgrades at the crossing without any aid from the state.

Or it could fight to keep the crossing open only to have the railroad commissioner uphold the order and then have to pay for street modifications without any aid from the state.

The City Council will hold a public hearing at their Nov. 11 meeting before making a final decision what direction to take. The office of the railroad commissioner has put a public hearing of its own on hold until the city makes its decision, but if the city decides to fight the closing that office will move ahead with its hearing and final decision.

There is no denying that closing the crossing will have an impact on all of us. The daily traffic count on that block of North Milwaukee Street is 2,400 vehicles – that’s a lot of traffic.

But there is also no denying that the railroad crossing is not as safe or as easy to navigate as it could be – especially for larger vehicles.

Previous innovations like the roundabouts, J-turns and limited intersections have proven a hassle for many drivers used to old patterns and ways, there’s no doubt.

Still, statistics prove that all of those changes are safer than what was there before, and that should be the bottom line.

In a few years or so, things like roundabouts and new traffic patterns become old hat for most and many new drivers come along who never even knew the old ways of driving. That’s true, for instance, for the long-closed block of Main Street between Caroline and Milwaukee streets, and it will probably become true as well for a no-longer through street on Milwaukee Street.

At issue:
Milwaukee Street rail crossing
Bottom line:
Closing it will have an impact

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