Proposal for underpass at a standstill

This article was reported by Brett Bridges, Keith Beber and Kevin Kleptz.

Goshen College is at risk of losing a chance to install a railroad underpass, and nearly $2 million in federal funding to build it, because of an apparent impasse with the Norfolk Southern Railway.

At the heart of the standoff is Norfolk Southern’s request that Goshen College eliminate other pedestrian railroad crossings on campus – as many as five – in exchange for adding the underpass.

“Everyone who crosses the tracks would be expected to go under the single tunnel. That’s just not going to happen,” said Jim Histand, the vice president of finance at Goshen College.

The college’s overall concern is improving campus safety. Building the proposed underpass is a foreseeable way to achieve this; however, closing other crosswalks in addition to building the underpass does not accomplish the overall safety goals for the college.

“For a campus like ours, it just makes no sense at all,” said Histand. “If you take crossings away, we think students would cross illegally. They would run up the stones alongside the track and jump over the tracks.”

Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern,  said in a phone interview that the company is holding discussions with the college about the best way for the underpass to be constructed.

“We’re in favor of the underpass being built,” Husband said. “We’re under a federal mandate to close as many unnecessary railroad crossings as possible. With so many crossings close to each other, it makes sense to eliminate others.”

Husband said that Norfolk Southern is working with the school in order to address the safety concerns of both the college and the railroad.  Currently, 10 to 15 trains pass through the campus daily.

“No decisions have been made about how many crossings will be closed,” said Husband. “Conversations about those closings will happen when the underpass is built. Besides, any closings would have to be approved by the Indiana Department of Transportation.”

The railway, which is part of the Norfolk Southern Corporation based in Norfolk, Va., operates 21,000 route miles in 22 states and the District of Columbia. The railway is the nation’s largest carrier of metals and automotive products. Trains passing through campus can be seen hauling wood, chemicals, military vehicles and other products.

For at least 15 years, the college has considered building an underpass on campus, and construction was set to begin in 2009, but first the college had to reach an agreement with Norfolk Southern on the condition under which a new crossing – an overpass or an underpass – would be built.

Histand and the other members of the Space Planning Committee, which serves as the lead negotiator for the college, at one point wanted to create an underpass with long, sloping access ramps.

Histand said that Norfolk Southern initially approved that design, but then rejected the proposal because of safety concerns – the railway feared that the crossing might be at risk because of the weight and force of passing trains.

The current proposal calls for having elevators on both sides of the tracks, running from ground level to a lower-level crosswalk. Students could also access the crosswalk using steps on either side.

Then, at a meeting in October, Histand reported that railroad officials said that they would not approve the underpass unless the college agreed to close the other pedestrian crosswalks on campus.

“That was a curveball,” Histand said.

But Husband said that Norfolk Southern would like to “eliminate foot traffic and channel it into safe areas.” So while the railway is in favor of the underpass, he said, the railway also wants to close as many potentially unnecessary crossings as possible.

Time is of the essence for this 80-20 project, in which federal dollars channeled through the state would pay for 80 percent of the construction and the college would pay the remaining 20 percent.

The total cost of the survey and design for the underpass will be $349,450. DZL Indiana, an architectural and engineering consultant firm, was hired to prepare the design and topography survey for the underpass.

Norfolk Southern and Goshen College would have to agree on a plan by October 2010 or the federal funding for this project will be lost.

“We have essentially been in the planning stage for close to two years,” Histand said. “We continue to be in that planning design phase. Part of what has taken so long is to find a design that would fit within budget parameters.”

Norfolk Southern said it might be possible to close crossings elsewhere around the city in exchange for allowing the pedestrian crossings on campus to remain open, Histand said. But the city said it had no crossings suitable for closing, he said.

With the current plans are apparently at a standstill, Mayor Allan Kauffman of Goshen said it may be time to involve local congressmen. “We have lots of money invested in this,” Kauffman said.

Written by Brett Bridges

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