Wesson board rejects RR crossing plan

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, May 7, 2003

WESSON — The board of aldermen believe a strong vote againstthe closure of the Seventh Street crossing will convince railroadofficials to either slow train speeds or protect the dangerouscrossing.

Following a 45-minute discussion, Mayor Bill Tigner was met withcomplete silence Tuesday night when, for the third time in a year,he asked the board for a motion to close the Seventh Streetcrossing and protect all other crossings in town with gates andflashing lights.

Instead, Ward Four Alderman Hollis Cowen Jr. offered a newproposal to the railroad company, which had clearly stated that itsrecent proposal was its last before company officials take mattersinto their own hands. The railroad’s proposal involves closing theSeventh Street crossing in exchange for new crossing gates at MainStreet and a $30,000 payment to the town.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Cowen was backed by all aldermen present in his motion topropose that the railroad slow its trains and, rather than closingit, make the Seventh Street crossing safer by installing crossingguards.

“If you think the railroad is concerned about safety, ask themto slow down 10 miles or even to a more reasonable 40 miles perhour,” said Cowen, who displayed much emotion while addressing theresidents and railroad officials present for the meeting and publichearing.

Cowen compared the railroad’s proposal to the United Statesgoing into Iraq to be “bullies and tyrants.” He said the railroadwas trying to cram the proposal down the town’s throat by givingthem no options.

“I’m elected here, Bubba, you just showed up,” said a heatedCowen.

When asked repeatedly to slow the trains, Steve Edwards of theMississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) Rail Division,explained that train speeds are regulated by the federalgovernment, not the railroad.

To give residents and aldermen a better understanding of theproposal to close the Seventh Street crossing, Edwards explainedthat the town’s crossings had been reviewed by MDOT after railroadofficials made the request because of the number of accidents atSeventh Street.

“We want to save lives. That’s our goal,” he said. “This is abenefit for the traveling public.”

Town residents agreed that the crossing was dangerous and therehad been countless close calls at the intersection.

“I’ve closed my eyes plenty of times,” said resident EddieAshley. “I’ve seen a lot of your children and my friends almost gethit right there.”

Many of the approximately 30 people in the crowd spoke up toencourage aldermen to close the crossing.

“I use it regularly but can certainly live without it,” saidresident Carolyn Graham.

On average, more than 22 trains come through Wesson in any given24-hour period. The trains enter the Seventh Street crossing justthree seconds after rounding a curve in the tracks about 270 feetaway, according to John Dinning with the Canadian National/IllinoisCentral Railroad Company.

“I’ve been almost hit by a train, and I’ve stopped andlistened,” said resident Dorothy Martin.

Despite the apparent sentiments of the crowd, the board did notaccept the final proposal from MDOT. Edwards said he expected thecrossing to be closed anyway because of the hazards it poses todrivers.

“It’s going to be my recommendation to the rail division toclose the crossing,” he said.

According to state law, MDOT “shall have power, upon its ownmotion or upon complaint filed, after having made properinvestigation, and after notice and hearing, if requested, toabolish any public roadway/railroad crossing…”

Tigner, who has pleaded with the board to close the crossingseveral times since taking office, said the railroad would have aletter from the mayor’s office recommending closure of the SeventhStreet crossing.

He expressed his fear of litigation involving the town if anaccident occurs at the Seventh Street or Main Street crossingsafter aldermen had an opportunity to close Seventh Street andprotect Main Street with crossing guards.

“I really think that is a very feasible situation that we willone day face,” said Tigner, mentioning a similar lawsuit involvingthe city of Ponchatoula, La.

Aldermen insisted that the town force the railroad to beresponsible for any fatalities that could occur. Last year, a truckload of teenagers ran into the side of a train at the crossing, butno fatalities have been reported yet.

Cowen said he believes a death or a train hitting the rightperson, such a physician hit more than a decade ago in Wesson,would get the railroad to put up crossing guards rather than closethe crossing.

Cowen expressed his fear of seeing a resident fall victim to thetrain as he described in gory detail the death of a Wesson woman ata Brookhaven crossing several years ago.

The Seventh Street crossing ranks 364th in the state on the raildivision’s list prioritizing crossings that need to be protected,while Main Street comes in at 522, according to Edwards.

“We put in eight to 10 crossing guards a year. We’re required togo by a priority list, so it would be 50-60 years before we got toit,” he said.

Alderman-at-Large David Douglas was not in attendance at themeeting due to a work scheduling conflict. Cowen read a letter,apparently from Douglas, saying he and his constituents did notwant to close the Seventh Street crossing.

The meeting continued with routine business as most residentsfiled out of town hall after the vote against the proposal.

In other matters, the town adopted an ordinance to prohibitresidents from allowing grass and weeds to grow taller than 12inches before a warning and later a citation is issued by thepolice department, which will be responsible for enforcing it. Theordinance, which also addresses litter, will go into effect in 30days.

The next board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., June 3, at townhall.