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Published: Monday, 8/22/2005

Funding woes sidetrack Monroe rail consolidation

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE - Growing up decades ago in what is now her brother's house on Kentucky Avenue, Irene Kelley recalls discussions about relocating the railroad track that ran through the front yard, on the southeast side of the street.

Since then, Mrs. Kelley has moved out of town and back again, and now lives around the corner on Sixth Street.

The railroad track along Kentucky is still there - used by a dozen or so freight trains on a typical day - and Mrs. Kelley said she and other longtime neighborhood residents despair of various failed proposals over the years to move it.

"It doesn't matter what we say or do, they're not going to do anything," she said Friday.

"That [track] should have been out of there a long time ago," agreed Michael Mushing, who professes to have lived at 810 Kentucky - with the track across the street from his front door - for more than 70 years.

And while Tennery Wilson, who moved in at 609 Kentucky two years ago, says she has adapted to the trains' noise and vibration, she still has to watch out when her grandchildren visit.

"We've taught them that they aren't to go beyond that path," she said, pointing to a dirt trail running next to the track in her front yard. "When they hear a train, they have to get up on the porch, because there's things hanging off those trains sometimes that could hit them."

The latest proposal, for which U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell (D., Dearborn) earmarked $5 million in the six-year transportation bill that President Bush signed into law Aug. 10, envisions building a track next to a line that runs parallel to, but several blocks east of, the track along Kentucky.

The Kentucky track, used primarily by Norfolk Southern trains traveling south from the Detroit area to Toledo, then would be removed.

It is the proposed second phase of a railroad crossing-elimination and consolidation program that began with the construction of the $14 million John D. Dingell Bridge, which since its October, 2002, completion allows Dixie Highway to pass under Canadian National and northbound Norfolk Southern tracks it formerly crossed at-grade.

At that time, the second phase was projected to cost $35 million, which would have provided for relocating seven miles of Norfolk Southern's southbound main line from a point near I-75 north of Monroe all the way to South Otter Creek Road in LaSalle Township.

That version of the project would have included building a replacement for Warner Yard, a railcar switching complex that the relocated track would by-pass.

Over the past three years, however, project planners have endeavored to find costs to cut. A Nov. 19 letter from Mark Sawyer, a Norfolk Southern professional engineer, summarizes two alternatives that the railroad estimates will cost $28 million and $23.5 million, respectively:

  • keeping the railyard where it is, crossing the main track over to the new alignment near Noble Street, and building a new River Raisin bridge immediately next to the northbound bridge to handle the second track. The original version had the two tracks merge to cross the river on the existing bridge, which would have required remote-controlled switches and a new signal system;

  • or, along with the above, shortening the line relocation by about three miles, moving its south end to a point near the LaPlaisance Road grade crossings.

    Either of those cost-reduction options "meet the project objective to remove the transportation conflicts along Kentucky Avenue," Mr. Sawyer wrote.

    But he then conceded, "It is acknowledged that in this era of restricted budgets and cost-cutting measures by federal and state funding sources, this worthy project initiation may never realize funding authority nor a mutually acceptable approved concept plan."

    Patrick Lewis, the city engineer, said city officials expect to land "several million dollars" in safety funds for the project because it will eliminate nine railroad crossings in Monroe, though it may also create several new ones.

    But otherwise, the project's budget remains a work in progress.

    Project planners are looking toward the Michigan Department of Transportation for assistance, on the grounds that the south end of the consolidation could reduce the future cost of a proposed I-75 business loop entering Monroe from the south.

    But Bill Shreck, an MDOT spokesman, said last week he wasn't sure the department would provide any money for the project, since most of it would involve railroad construction for a major, private railroad company. If the track were state-owned, he said, that circumstance would be different.

    Rudy Husband, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the railroad plans to continue cooperating with the proposal but is not yet ready to commit to a specific financial role.

    Mr. Lewis said the city's contribution is unknown, and project planners don't expect any more help from Washington.

    Mr. Dingell, in a statement Friday, said the $5 million in the highway bill is intended to get the project moving, but he did not address whether more federal funds might become available for it in the future.

    "We have good partners from the city, county, state and the railroad working to get Phase II of the Monroe Area Rail consolidation started," the congressman said.

    "This money is a down payment towards the future of the Kentucky Avenue corridor. It has been a long time coming, but all partners are working very hard together to see to it that Phase II is equally as successful as Phase I," he said.

    In a Feb. 22 letter to Mr. Dingell thanking him for his efforts on the project, Mayor John Iacoangeli said the city will "employ our best efforts with other project partners to reduce the current scope of the project to a program budget of approximately $15 million."

    The city will strive to have all funding committed by the end of 2007, the mayor wrote.

    But if the project's budget collapses, Mr. Lewis said there is a back-up plan: offering buyouts to some of the residents who live closest to the tracks, and closing some of the street crossings without moving the track.

    "It's not an option that's really on the table yet, and it's definitely not a preferred alternative," Mr. Lewis said. "We think if we can get [the relocation] down to $15 million, we can fund it."

    Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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