Concerned residents and public officials packed the Lighthouse Community Church Thursday to discuss the issue of railroad cars blocking streets and roads in New Martinsville.
The event was hosted by the Wetzel County Democrats and moderated by Democratic Women President Frances Headley. She said the meeting was prompted by a complaint via social media from Patsy Hoyt when she and her husband Ron said they were stopped on state Route 2 by a train for over an hour on Feb. 23.
While waiting on the train, which later was said to have been detained because of a mechanical problem, Hoyt called CSX, the New Martinsville Police Department, and the Wetzel County Sheriff's Office. It is said that traffic, on that day from that incident, was backed up River Hill on state Route 180 and as far as Talkington's Gun Shop to Russell Avenue (traffic light to Wal-Mart) on state Route 2.
Wetzel County Prosecutor Tim Haught talks about an ordinance that might give some relief to those held up by trains in New Martinsville. A well-attended public meeting was held Thursday to discuss the various issues where citizens feel unnecessarily blocked by trains for lengthy periods of time. (Photo by Amy Witschey)
Headley said once the issue was posted on Facebook, it was discovered there were railroad problems in other areas. Among others, residents of the portion of the Brooklyn section of New Martinsville between the railroad and river have been particularly inconvenienced by railroad traffic since the Brooklyn Bridge on Main Street has been closed. The closure is because the bridge's piers have been deemed unsafe.
One letter from a citizen that came from the social media firestorm was chosen to be read at the meeting. It was from Bruce Knowlton of Paden City. It recounted how, on March 28, 2010, his father died while waiting, in Paden City, for an ambulance from New Martinsville. The ambulance was detained by a train on the state Route 2 crossing in New Martinsville. "This problem has needed attention for many years," said Knowlton.
Wetzel County Prosecutor Tim Haught told those in attendance that since he has been prosecutor, 14 years ago, he has received one complaint. It was in response to the blockage on Feb. 23.
The following Wednesday Haught said he called CSX and the Public Service Commission Transportation Division to discuss the issue.
"After reviewing the code, there is a provision that allows for the railroad company to be fined under certain circumstances," said Haught.
State Code 31-2A-2 says, in part, "It is unlawful for any railroad company, except in an emergency, to order, allow or permit the operation of or to operate or to so operate its system so that a train blocks the passage of vehicular traffic over the railroad crossing of any public street, road, or highway of this state for a period longer than 10 minutes. This section does not apply to an obstruction of any such street, road, or highway caused by a continuously moving train or caused by circumstances wholly beyond the control of the railroad, but does apply to all other obstructions as aforesaid, including, but not limited to, those caused by a stopped train or a train engaged in switching, loading or unloading operations: Provided, That if any such train is within the jurisdictional limits of any municipality which now has or hereafter shall have in force and effect an ordinance limiting the time a railroad crossing may be blocked by a train, such ordinance shall govern, and the provisions of this article shall not be applicable."
Haught does not believe switching, like the back and forth motion that is common on the tracks in New Martinsville, is exempted under the code.
He instructed those at the meeting to report any blockages beyond 10 minutes to the NMPD. Captain Steve Kastigar said he would develop a log specifically for those calls. He also reminded residents that if testimony is needed for a particular incident, the NMPD would not contact all of those who made a complaint as that would be unnecessary. Perhaps two or three would be all that was needed.
The ordinance does lay out penalties for non-emergency blockages: $150, first offense; $250, second offense; and $350, third offense. This is payable by the railroad company, which most in attendance said would not be burdened by those assessments.
Emergency situations are a different story. "In the event of an emergency they are required to clear the tracks," noted Haught. He said he knows the NMPD has invoked that before, successfully.
As for the situation with the Brooklyn Bridge, resident Linda Stackpole asked the county commissioners, who were all in attendance, about its status. She said she left a commission meeting last year very hopeful, thinking that perhaps by February there would be a bridge.
Commission President Bob Gorby said the project has been put out for bid. The state received three bids. "It has already been approved. Of course it is in the state highway department's hands," said Gorby. The bid went to Velotta of Sharon Center, Ohio.
Commission Vice President Larry Lemon added that a necessary pre-construction meeting is scheduled for March 21.
Haught said he had spoken with the Governor's office wondering if there was any way to speed up the process. "Basically the best I can get on completion is 60-90 days from commencement," said Haught.
"Getting that bridge open has been a priority for the commission" for a year, said Haught.
Commissioner Don Mason said he gives a lot of credit to local legislators. "They really took the bull by the horns," he said, noting that through a lot of "lobbying" they moved the project up.