SALT LAKE CITY — The Legislature is wading into a seemingly endless struggle between an industrial behemoth and Wasatch Front cities over inconvenient and sometimes dangerous delays at railroad crossings.
House Bill 205 would mandate that train switching operations last no more than 15 minutes if they occur on roads that average traffic of more than 5,000 vehicles per day or when at least five cars are waiting to cross in either direction.
The House Transportation Committee approved the bill 7-3 Wednesday after a few lawmakers expressed frustration over Union Pacific Railroad’s level of willingness to help fund solutions.
Union Pacific lobbyist Nathan Anderson said the railroad would agree to pay 5 percent of the construction cost of an overpass on Brigham City’s Forest Street — a project that may not happen for several years or even decades.
Brigham City Mayor Tyler Vincent said the city has had numerous meetings with the railroad over the years about crossing blockages that happen hundreds of times a year on Forest Street, an east-west thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of the city.
Residents “are very upset and frustrated,” Vincent told the committee. “They can’t get to work.”
And fire and ambulance crews often become stuck on the east side of the tracks when they’re needed at crash emergencies on Interstate 15 to the west, he said.
“We fear we can’t get to incidents on the freeway and loss of life will happen,” he said.
The city presented results of a study detailing the magnitude of blockages, which in a recent 45-day period averaged almost 25 minutes, with a few lasting an hour or more.
Anderson said blockages are frequent because the Forest Street crossing is essentially inside the railroad’s switching yard. Switching operations are necessary to shift rail cars from track to track and there are no shortcuts to efficiency that haven’t already been taken, he said.
The volume is also a testament to economic growth in the city and Utah, he said.
He also objected to the bill’s 15-minute limit.
“A 15-minute wait cycle presents some real challenges to the ultimate goal of serving our customers,” Anderson said. “The cascade effect is that it would create more volume at any given time at Brigham City. There would be less room to do the switching and more blocking of the street.”
The railroad also believes federal rail regulation trumps state law and that the switching bill and even existing state controls of crossing times are invalid, Anderson said.
Vincent said the city has asked Union Pacific to help pay for timed warning signs that would alert drivers far before the crossing that a blockage is underway.
“We ran that up the flagpole” but the railroad’s brass said no, Anderson said.
“Tying into our signal system could cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” Anderson said. “But until you have an overpass, you’re going to continue to have problems.”
He said the company paid half the cost of a Brigham City rail overpass study six years ago, “and we don’t do that ever.”
That study estimated an overpass could cost $25 million or more, a big price tag for a small city. Forest Street is a city road.
Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, said Anderson was emphasizing the requirements of his business “at the same time you’re asking communities to be inconvenienced and spend money for your convenience.”
Referring to the railroad’s pledge to pay for some of an overpass project, she asked Anderson, “Do you think your responsibility is 5 percent of this?”
He said the 5 percent figure comes from a federal project formula.
Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, wondered why Union Pacific “would pay $1.2 million toward an overpass but not $200,000 for signage.”
“That seems just like a little bit of a refusal,” Andersen said.
“I think this problem is more rampant than just in Brigham City — the same problem is happening in Provo,” Judkins said. “Something needs to happen and nothing is happening.”
HB 205 is now on the House’s final reading calendar.