Planners say no to closing crossing

by Emmitt B. Feldner of The Review staff

PLYMOUTH – The city drew its first line in the sand over the future of the North Milwaukee Street railroad crossing Thursday.

The Plan Commission voted unanimously to reject a proposal by the state commissioner of railroads to close the railroad crossing.

The City Council will be voting at their meeting tonight (Tuesday) on the resolution to close the crossing, but it would require a super-majority vote of six aldermen to overturn the commission’s vote to oppose closing the crossing.

Opposition to closing the crossing was unanimous as well during a public hearing on the resolution supporting the closing attended by nearly a dozen people.

Representatives of Orange Cross ambulance, which recently merged with Plymouth Ambulance, voiced their concern over the impact of closing the crossing on emergency response to the city’s north side and north of the city.

Noting that their ambulances in Plymouth are housed on South Milwaukee Street, Craig Schicker of Orange Cross said, “That through way is really key for us to get to the north side of the city. (Closing the crossing) will delay our time getting out of the city.”

Brian Goelzer of Orange Cross agreed, saying the through street, “is a vital artery for us to get north.”

He said the service averages 160 calls a year on the city’s north side and north of the city. “We already struggle to get to the north side of our service area and (losing the crossing) could be devastating to the communities north of us,” Goelzer warned.

The lack of safety concerns at the crossing and the nearby intersection of Milwaukee Street, Western Avenue and Main Street was another issue raised at the hearing.

Police Chief Jeff Tauscheck reported that over the last six years, there have only been three accidents at the intersection and said the railroad crossing and rail configuration was not a factor in any of them.

“We can’t say that traffic safety warrants the reason to close this crossing,” City Administrator Brian Yerges commented. “We have not received an official communication relating the reason for closing the crossing.”

Mayor Donald Pohlman pointed out that a 2008 Department of Transportation study found a traffic count of 2,500-2,600 vehicles a day at the railroad crossing. “I think that is of major significance in this decision,” he said.

“If you close it, where’s the traffic going to go,” city Railroad Service Coordinator Jerry Thompson asked. He suggested that closing the crossing could divert three vehicles a minute going north or south during peak hours through downtown.

“It’s going to force truck traffic and other traffic into (part of) downtown and they’ll have to make turns that are pretty darn tight,” Thompson continued.

He told the commissioners that the DOT routinely routes extra-high or wide loads going north or south through or into the city along Milwaukee Street. The DOT office that regulates that traffic was not aware of the pending order to close the rail crossing, Thompson added.

Sartori Foods, located adjacent to the crossing, has indicated its opposition to closing the crossing, Yerges reported. An official from GTS, which runs trucks in and out of Sartori, added his company’s opposition.

Director of Public Works Bill Immich explained that the city would be eligible for $15,000 in aid to help in closing the crossing if it supports the decision to close.

The DOT had committed $170,000 for upgrading crossing signals on Milwaukee Street, but when that went to the commissioner of railroad’s office, that office ruled that the crossing should be closed instead, Immich related.

He also noted that the commissioner’s rulings are confirmed 90 percent of the time, according to state records.

Yerges noted that the commissioner had scheduled a public hearing on the order to close, but postponed the hearing while the city decided on a course of action. If the city remains opposed to closing the crossing, that hearing process would be reinstated, he said.

“The commissioner’s office generally closes crossings for safety issues,” Thompson noted. Included in that determination, he said, is the frequency and speed of trains utilizing the crossing.

Currently, two trains a week come into Plymouth, according to Thompson. The yard limits set by the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad include the entire city limits, he said, and trains within those yard limits are restricted to a maximum speed of 4 mph.

“It’s not like we have high-speed traffic and frequent trains to consider. I believe the railroad commissioner is reasonable and will listen to our traffic and safety concerns. I think we’ve got a pretty good shot to keep it open,” Thompson said of the crossing.

“If we vote not to close, we risk $15,000,” commission member and Alderman John Nelson commented. “In my mind, it is not significant if we risk that,” to oppose closing the crossing.

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