Wetzel County Commission President Don Mason reported at a special meeting Oct. 1 that construction on New Martinsville's Brooklyn/Main Street bridge project would begin sooner than expected.
"We want that bridge open just as much as you all," Mason stated. "We are hoping this contract will be let sometime in October. That's what they told us today in Charleston."
Mason stated that credit for expediting the contractual process has to be given to West Virginia Representatives Senator Larry Edgell and Delegate David Pethtel. He added, "Senator Kessler stepped in and went to (WV Department of Transportation Secretary Paul) Mattox and indicated that it's imperative we get this bridge open as soon as possible. They moved us up to the top of the ladder, so we are pleased with that."
New Martinsville’s Brooklyn residents are frustrated and disappointed in the action that has been taken to alleviate their travel woes, caused by the closure of the Brooklyn/Main Street bridge. (Photo by Lauren Matthews)
The public meeting was held to field concerns of residents in the western section of Brooklyn.
Since the bridge was closed in March, the residents' only way to and from their homes is across the railroad tracks which are often blocked by trains as the area is near CSX's switching yard. The bridge is open to foot traffic and keys to a gate across the bridge were previously given to first responders so they could have access in the event of an emergency.
One misunderstanding seemed to involve whether or not first responders were still allowed to across the bridge by emergency vehicle.
"When I called the police department when the brakes (on a train) were locked up, they said they were looking for the keys . . . the police department was looking for the keys," one gentleman charged.
Mason stated he had heard of the rumor that first responders no longer had keys to unlock the gates blocking vehicular access across the bridge; however, he said the commission had contacted all first responders in the county, who confirmed they still had keys.
"Who made the decision for first responders to come across the bridge and bring a 200,000 ton piece of equipment across if the bridge is not safe?" the same gentleman questioned.
"I think the engineers understand a lot less traffic will go through there. A fire truck going across there will be no problem. They are shutting the bridge down to public traffic," Mason responded.
"That's a pretty expensive piece of equipment they are going to bring across the bridge," one woman noted. Mason stated that the first route anyway would be across the train tracks. "Even dispatchers are instructed to, in any emergencies, to contact CSX as soon as possible."
Several representatives from CSX were available to answer questions from residents. The main speaker for the evening was J. Randolph Cheetham, CSX's regional vice president. "I was pleased to hear they were going to let the contract on this bridge next month," Cheetham stated. "We were as surprised by the bridge closing as you are. We got the notice from the city one day. That was our notice. We want the bridge in place as much as you do. We want to be good neighbors in the area where we operate. We've been in this community a long time."
Cheetham added: "The good news is this yard is busy because there's a lot of economic development, a lot of job creation . . . I live in southern West Virginia where we have a lot of tracks that used to carry coal cars that aren't carrying them anymore.. The good news is your area is doing well. You have jobs and growth, but that means, we are moving a lot of cars more often. And this time, it's creating problems for your neighborhood. Believe me, I wouldn't want to sit and wait."
"Do you think CSX can put some heat on the state and federal government?" one resident asked.
"I was with Senator Kessler not last Sunday, but the Sunday before," stated Cheetham. "I said we needed to get the bridge built."
"Is there anyway CSX can help with funding for the bridge?" another resident asked." Mason responded that the issue was not with the funding for the bridge, as it was already appropriated.
One woman lamented that she crosses the tracks four times a day, due to dropping her kids off at a babysitter. "If it is raining or really cold, I can't take my five-month-old baby across the bridge. I've been stopped so many times though, waiting 4045 minutes. I've been late to work, late to my son's football practice, and it's like no one cares. Every time I call they say 'We are trying. We are trying.'"
One resident at the meeting had claimed that when calling CSX about clearing the crossing, the respondent on the line had used expletives against him. Chad Wheeling, trainmaster at CSX, stated that his company had no place for rudeness and he would look into the matter. "CSX has a policy to be an upstanding citizen, to be civil and courteous at every extreme and every manner. I will research that and take care of that. There's no place at CSX to be rude, uncivilized, and belligerent. I won't tolerate that."
Wheeling stated that when CSX first began receiving complaints, a night shift job was added. "Their purpose is to start switching the yard out early. Instead of 150 cars in the first shift, we are getting a good jump. We are switching 50-70 percent of those cars during the night shift." Wheeling noted that workers should be finishing up the switch during the day. "They shouldn't be blocking the crossing an hour to an hour and 45 minutes," he stated.
Residents suggested that CSX put the Central Street crossing back in, as they could go behind the train every time it is at the other crossing. Wheeling suggested that this might cause drivers to have a false sense of security.
"I used to live right there," Mason stated, "and for years there's never been an accident. I think that's consistent to show that's a pretty safe crossing down there. It could be just a temporary base until we get the bridge open to relieve some of these people."
Wheeling explained that moving the train back and forth every few minutes for cars to cross over the crossing, as residents kept suggesting, is not as simple as it sounds, because of the air brakes on a train. An air tank, on each car of the train is given air from air compressors on the locomotive. The air from the locomotive is sent to every car through the train's brake pipe. Once all air tanks are filled with air, the engineer can set the brakes on the train by bleeding air out of the brake pipe that is on each car of the train. This air comes from air compressors on the locomotive and is sent to every car on the train through the train's brake pipe.
The process to release brakes is just as technical and involves sending compressed air back through the train.
"One of the things with moving back those cars . . . we absolutely have to wait on the locomotive to release the pressure," Wheeling explained.
"Why don't you have two men checking the switch?" another resident suggested. "You need two men on the ground to speed that process, instead of the one man having to walk half a mile."
Wheeling stated that this too could cause a safety hazard, with possible miscommunications between the two workers. "Safety studies show this isn't a good plan."
"So this guy goes on his hike for a half a mile, don't sit there and hold the crossing," the gentleman further stated. "There's three cars there at the crossing. Clear the crossing while he takes his walk."
At the conclusion of the Oct. 1 meeting, CSX officials and residents agreed to keep the crossing open from approximately 6:45-7:45 a.m., as this time period would benefit both morning shift work-goers as well as morning school traffic. Wheeling did warn the audience that there might be a handful of cars that would be taken through the crossing. "I could not afford to shortchange a customer," he noted. Wheeling said he would put the process in place to start on Thursday.
Despite this opening of the crossing, many residents still expressed frustration with CSX on the Wetzel Chronicle Facebook page. When asked for their opinion of CSX's efforts, many expressed the same sort of opinion: a negative one.
"I was at the meeting," Brooklyn resident Charlie Myers commented. "I expected to see local emergency services personnel and Department of Highways personnel. Instead, all we got was a dog and pony show from CSX. I have said it before, CSX will do nothing for us because they are all about profit."
Myers continued: "All we wanted was some cooperation, we were not asking for them to cease operations. They were only willing to give a guaranteed 15-minute window, morning and evening. They were willing to open Central Street crossing if they could close the other two. Once again, not what we asked for. They would not give a clear answer when asked why crossings weren't cleared when the train was two or fewer car lengths from the crossing. I don't believe the CSX officials in attendance know what really happens in the local switch yard. I know the bridge issue is not the fault of CSX, but they are not willing to give an inch to be good neighbors."
Resident Linda Headley Knight offered her input: "Why would they open up the third crossing as a way to relieve waiting. . . then close the other two? Just what would that solve. And is the bridge so bad it can't at least stay open until they start working on it."
"They will try to help us out but they can't guarantee any type of window for the residents to get through," resident Deanna Scott stated. "I don't mind waiting 10 minutes here or there, but having to choose to either wait 40 minutes for the train or walk across the bridge with my five-month-old in the pouring rain or cold plain stinks. There is no choice really."
We are trapped in this situation and supposed to treat it as a good thing for our community!"
Unfortunately, in a statement to the Wetzel Chronicle, Carrie Bly, communications specialist for the West Virginia Department of Highways, had some information that conflicted with what was given at the Oct. 1 meeting:
"The plans are completed and the WVDOH is working to secure the environmental permits," Bly stated. "The Categorical Exclusion is presently being worked on at this time. The mussel survey has been completed. A historical archeological and environment review is being conducted, along with a request for an approval letter from the DNR."
She added, "After all of this, a 404 Permit will be requested from the US Army Core of Engineers. The contract can then be advertised, awarded, and construction can commence. According to our project tracking the construction cost will be around $100,000. The project is scheduled to begin next spring."
When asked about this statement from Bly, Commission President Mason stood by what was said at the Oct. 1 meeting, that the contract would be awarded this month. Mason stated this was the commission's understanding from "the state department of highways."