Tempers flare over traffic backups

January 26, 2013

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Repeated back-ups occurred this week at the Cresson intersection, resulting in a heated confrontation between local officials and railroad representatives and an attempt by fed-up motorists to take matters into their own hands.

On Thursday afternoon – one day after morning rush hour traffic was backed up for miles because of malfunctioning arms at the railroad crossing – it happened again. Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Berry said that when Hood County deputies arrived on the scene, citizens were trying to manually lift the arms so that traffic could pass.

Wednesday’s traffic jam appeared to be the worst of several delays this week at the intersection of highways 377 and 171, reportedly lasting about 45 minutes. It occurred shortly after 7 a.m. City and county officials said that traffic was backed up for about three miles.

“We got all kinds of calls,” said County Judge Darrell Cockerham, who went to the scene with Berry.

Berry, as well as former Precinct 3 Commissioner Leonard Heathington, were instrumental in getting the ball rolling on a bypass that will skirt the railroad crossing at the intersection of Highway 377 and Highway 171. The bypass initiative is in the early stages, with an environmental study expected to be completed this year. The study must be done before dirt can be turned.

Local officials said that the stuck crossing arms were finally raised Wednesday morning by a Hood County deputy who borrowed a wrench from railroad workers.

Berry said he began getting calls on his cell phone from angry constituents at about 7:30 a.m. He and Cockerham were joined at the scene by Cresson Mayor Bob Cornett, representatives from the Fort Worth and Stephenville offices of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Fort Worth & Western Railroad.

The collection of officials held an impromptu meeting at the site, and some of the exchanges weren’t exactly cordial. Berry and Cornett threatened to hand out flyers to motorists with the railroad officials’ cell phone numbers or to plaster the numbers on a billboard.

“I was mad. We have fought this thing for years,” said Cornett. “They (railroad representatives) got a little huffy, but of course, Steve and I were beating on them pretty bad.”

Cornett and Berry said they predicted that annoying malfunctions would happen when TxDOT determined that the crossing arms were needed at the Cresson intersection.

“We went to many, many meetings before they put these arms in and we told them this was going to be a disaster and that we would be getting phone calls,” Berry said. “When (the arms malfunction), 911 gets calls immediately, which floods our 911 dispatchers.”

TxDOT officials declined to comment.

a dangerous situation?

Berry said the arms were placed at the railroad crossing in the interest of safety, yet on Wednesday, frustrated motorists were driving into the opposite lanes of traffic in order to skirt medians and pass through the narrow opening between the railroad gates.

“How safe is that?” Berry said. “We’ve got people opposing each other in traffic.”

Cornett said he understands that the arms at railroad crossings help ensure the public’s safety, but “they’ve got to work.” He said that there is another safety issue besides frustrated motorists taking matters into their own hands: fire trucks and ambulances can’t get through when the crossing arms are down and traffic is backed up for miles.

At times when air ambulances can’t fly due to dangerous weather conditions, ground ambulances could be prevented from passing through the main travel artery that leads to Fort Worth trauma centers, he pointed out.

“That would be a shame if somebody died because we’ve got arms across the road (even though) there’s no train,” the Cresson mayor said.

Berry and Cornett said they felt that the railroad representatives weren’t concerned about the safety and inconvenience issues that have been posed by the malfunctioning arms.

“They just don’t seem to care,” said Berry.

The Hood County News reached one of those officials, project manager William Parker, on his cell phone. Though Parker indicated that he does not agree with Berry’s and Cornett’s assessment, he declined to provide a statement on the record. No other railroad official provided a statement on the situation before the newspaper went to press.

harder than it has to be?

Berry stated that about 22,000 cars travel to and from Hood County every day through the intersection of Highway 377 and SH 171, and that many motorists are trying to get to work or to classes. Berry said that he got stuck at the railroad crossing for about 15 minutes on Sunday, and Cornett stated that he had the same experience on Monday.

Berry said the workers who were on site Wednesday were subcontractors. When asked why they didn’t try to raise the crossing arms themselves instead of a deputy having to do it, they replied: “That’s a good question,” Berry and Cockerham both reported.

Berry also pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office is short-staffed as it is, and there are liability issues involved in deputies trying to correct a problem that is the railroad’s responsibility.

He, Cockerham and Cornett said they are puzzled as to why subcontractors at the site can’t be trained on how to raise the arms when they malfunction.

Said Cornett: “I’ve got a 7-year-old great-grandson that you could probably train in a couple of hours. It can’t be that difficult, guys.”

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