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Monday, May 2, 2016

Rail tragedy spurs safety

Monday, September 10, 2001

Strandberg's memory reshapes safety study, SL team now turns to the public for input.

The tragic death of a young Storm Lake man could help to spur changes that may save other lives down the line - in this case, the railroad line.

The Storm Lake Traffic Safety Team is finishing up its mission of studying railroad crossing safety in the city, and will soon make a final report to the city council, according to Mark Prosser, Chief of Police and a member of that team. If they have their way, four crossings including Geneseo Street where B.J. Strandberg lost his life will be closed permanently.

While the team wasn't out to prove which crossings are the most dangerous, Prosser said that in his opinion, Seneca Street and Geneseo have the worst visibility for motorists to spot trains, due to immovable objects close to the tracks. Grand and College also have obstructed views and no warning devices, but generally less traffic.

Buena Vista University student-athlete Strandberg was killed when the pickup he was driving collided with a train earlier this year. A cross and flowers remain beside the roadbed to mark the spot.

While the railroad study was started about a year before Strandberg was killed, Prosser said that the tragedy brought new urgency and direction.

"It did change things somewhat. The plan was originally for the city to wait for crossing improvements to be made, and then look at closing some crossings under their agreement with the railroad. Right in the middle, there was this tragic accident," Prosser said.

"In a way, it changed the way the city approached the entire study. The initial direction the city was going was to consider closing Seneca, College and Grand crossings based on previous talks with the railroad. After B.J.'s tragic death, people voiced their opinions to city hall, and (City Administrator) John Call asked us to broaden the study to a comprehensive look at every railroad crossing in this town. I really feel that

was the right way to go."

Later this month, public meetings will be held Sept. 17 at 5 p.m. and Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. in city hall to collect input from the community about what should be done about the crossings.

"We have not had as much input as I thought so far, so we are really waiting to hear from people at those public meetings. We will be taking notes on what they tell us so their comments can be summarized as part of the final report we give to the city," Prosser said.

The Traffic Safety Team first reported to the council several weeks ago. Part of their study of all the railroad crossings in the city involved traffic counts in key locations. The council requested that additional counts be made once Buena Vista University students had returned to the city. Those new counts started last week, and should be done by Sept. 14.

"We will stand on our recommendations," Prosser said.

Those recommendations call for the closing of four crossings - Seneca Street, Geneseo Street, College Avenue and Grand Avenue; and requested upgrades such as warning lights and crossing arms at seven other crossings in the city.

Prosser said that he feels there are simply too many railroad crossings in Storm Lake, which increases the danger of car-train collisions to an unacceptable level. The Traffic Safety Team has been unanimous in recommending the action to close some crossings.

Along with emergency personnel, the team has also carefully considered the impact of closing the crossings on access of neighborhoods by fire trucks and ambulances, Prosser said. "There are so many crossings that even closing four or however many the council may choose should not raise any problems for emergency access."

It is not so easy to reconcile the economic impact of what they are proposing. The team is well aware that their recommendation may have major impacts on some businesses, and realize that some compromises may have to be looked into as the city pursues the matter, Prosser said.

Most crossings in the city still have no warning lights, and no crossing arms to stop traffic - including the Geneseo crossing where Strandberg was killed, where no safety improvements have been made following the fatality.

"It is not an issue of technology, but an issue of cost. (City Engineer) Jim Winterton estimated that installing the devices as was done in the most recent upgrade would cost $100,000 per crossing," Prosser said.

"That is certainly an issue for the city, since it is common for the cost of crossing improvements to be split among the city, railroad and the Iowa DOT. For the railroad, if every crossing in Storm Lake were to be upgraded, that would set a precedent where everyone along a railroad line could want them, and I would hate to even think how many rail crossings there are in Iowa and how much those costs would add up to."

There was no painted warning on Geneseo Street pavement as railroad officials described as standard policy at the time of Strandberg's death. Prosser said markings were added to the crossings most recently upgraded, but noted that the environmentally-friendly paints that are mandated for such work seem to fail to stand up to time and weather.

The crossings the team is expected to identify for upgrading with crossing arms and signals include Northwestern, Barton, Ontario, Oneida, Hudson, Radio Road and Gilbert Street. If those recommendations are met, cost is estimated at $700,000. City officials hope to apply for grants to meet a portion of the expense.

Under an existing agreement with the railroad and the city, the city has until February 1 to close at least three crossings, or it must pay the railroad back $40,000 toward the cost of the four crossings it improved recently.

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