Had a chance today to sit down with a couple of the local people who recently protested the proposal to close several railroad street crossings in Storm Lake, and they make a persuasive case for finding a better option.
The council's intentions are entirely good - to improve safety by negotiating a deal with the railroad that would essentially trade away four through streets and four pedestrian crossing spots for the means to move an existing set of crossing arms from one street to another that would remain open.
It just doesn't strike us as a good bargain - and it certainly didn't sit well with a crowd of people concerned about what more street closings would do to their businesses and neighborhoods, or the thousand-plus who reportedly signed a petition against the idea.
There is an exchange of property also in this deal, with the City getting some land on Railroad Street while Canadian National gets a site for a storage shed in the east part of town. If the City has a great development plan for the Railroad Street site, it hasn't said so, so we have to assume a site swap isn't the big issue here.
The people I spoke with had done their due diligence, and had been out photographing the last set of crossings the railroad had wanted closed, and got closed. It's not a pretty sight - broken concrete, rocks, unlovely warning signs, worn paths where people walk across the tracks anyway.
It's not like these dead end stubs that once linked neighborhoods were converted to streetscape lawn and shrubbery, or perhaps a neighborhood vegetable garden site or a place for a welcoming streetlamp.
They look like what they are - streets going nowhere, a couple deteriorating faster than the others.
We should indeed look closely at those, because that is what we stand to have more of.
I wonder what visitors think of the view of closed streets? Come to think of it, the site (and smell) of the railroad viaduct on Flindt Drive isn't exactly a Kodak moment either; nor are the piles of equipment or materials left by the tracks, some of it right along our downtown thoroughfare area, or the blank demolition zone where we once had a National Historical Registry landmark depot.
If this deal goes through, it would be eight streets we have traded away, and what we get in return is probably faster train traffic through our town.
One closed street isn't a disaster, except to the people who live on it, own property in the area, try to operate a business nearby, or use that particular block to drive, walk or bike to school or wherever else they travel.
But eight, four before and four now, plus pedestrian walkways, is enough to begin to change the feel, the look, the flow of the place. It's clearly enough to make people in the area concerned over police and fire response time. It's enough to make it annoying, especially for those who don't know every street intimately, to have to poke around or circle about to get from here to there.
A teenage girl spoke at the last meeting about the impact it would have on her walking from home to the high school. When was the last time a city issue moved a person of that age to go to a city meeting to make a plea? Youth input is gold to a community, as far as I'm concerned, because we seldom hear it. It's a good thing that the City took a step back, revisited safety and traffic issues. Once roads are closed, they are never coming back. If the City has talked with the railroad for three years on this issue already as has been said, a few more weeks won't matter.
Maybe, hopefully, another option can be found.
The Iowa Department of Transportation website says this about local government, railroads and the kind of crossing gate protection we need on these streets:
"Either can initiate a discussion on a safety improvement and costs can be borne by either or both parties."
Either or both... so it isn't simply a cut and dried matter that the City and its taxpayers should have to carry the full load for installing safety equipment that is to the railroad's benefit, liability-wise.
"The Iowa DOT administers federal funding that may assist in improvements, but funding is insufficient to fund all requests, and those that have the greatest safety benefit in relationship to cost are given priority for funding," it says.
No guarantees there, to be sure. I'm no expert here, but I wonder if an 1,100 name petition would help convince someone at the DOT of "benefit?" I bet we could do that several times over.
On Monday, the City will hold a 5 p.m. public hearing on the potential lease of land to the railroad, which could be a key moment in how all this plays out. It's open to the public, and the City, true to its word, took pains so that everyone would have a chance to know about it. Same with a study session on the proposed crossings on November 17.
No matter how this plays out, the community is the better for people standing up to give their opinions and input to the decision-makers. Such a dialog is healthy.