Railroad crossing 'upgrade' plans create controversy

Plans to “upgrade” some rural Indiana railroad crossings are causing confusion and controversy.

The crossings in question now rely on stop signs to control traffic, but some feel there’s a better way: It involves replacing the stop signs with yield signs.

“Initially it does sound strange as that would be a safety upgrade but several studies have backed this up that at these passive crossings, yield signs sometimes can be more effective in areas where a stop sign is not absolutely necessary,” said INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley.

In Marshall County there are 19 so-called ‘passive’ rail crossings. They’re in low traffic, rural areas. They don’t have crossing gates or warning lights, but they do have stop signs.

“The stop signs at railroad crossings we've had for 20 plus years,” said Marshall County Highway Supervisor Neal Haeck. “If it ain’t broke, let’s not try to change it.”

Imagine how Haeck felt when he got a memo from the Indiana Department of Transportation that read, “In general, these crossings should be marked with cross bucks and yield signs….We want to correct the situation by removing the stop sign and replacing it with a yield sign.”

“Stop signs, obviously in my opinion are safer than yield signs,” said Haeck. “People aren’t going to run a stop sign, you might slow down and people do have rolling stops, but a yield is going to make people not slow down as much and maybe glance and not take a good look down the tracks.”

In Marshall County, the switch in public policy seems to go against past practices and conventional wisdom, and government leaders aren’t so willing to hop aboard. “I was directed by the Board of Commissioners on Monday to go through and to contact them and to basically put together a ‘we approve the stop signs, we think that’s the safest way to go, and they want to stay there,” said Haeck.

According to INDOT, it won’t be impossible for Marshall County to keep some or all of its stop signs but officials will have to submit engineering studies for each crossing to prove that stop signs are needed. “The one thing we want to make sure people understand is that there are many passive crossings that need stop signs as well and that's not something that we're taking down all stop signs and putting up yield signs,” said Deitchley. “Federal highway, Norfolk Southern are basically saying you know if this is a place that needs a stop sign then let’s see the engineering report that says that this is required here.”

The crossings that are under review all belong to Norfolk Southern. Other improvements are planned to improve visibility beyond the traffic signs.

Officials in St. Joseph County received a similar letter from INDOT this week, but there are only two passive crossings listed there, and both are near Walkerton.

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