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Blocked Crossings: How One City Avoided Costly Infrastructure Projects with Innovative Technology and Partnerships

Richard Lower, Chief of Staff for New Haven, IN, presents on how the community was able to leverage innovation and partnerships to overcome their pervasive blocked crossing challenges.



Britni Eisenmann: Richard Lower is Chief of Staff for the city of New Haven, Indiana. He works with his team to find solutions to their railtown issues when grade separation is not possible, which may or may be the case for some of you as well! While new to local government, Richard has a background in service to the country having recently retired from the US Army after 21 years of enlisted service.


Richard Lower: Thank you Britni, and thank you everyone for being here today for providing me the time to speak and share the city of New Haven's story. We hope to contribute towards helping others find practical, affordable solutions when, as Britni mentioned, grade separation is not always a possibility. And so, we want to stress that in those situations, you're looking at innovation and partnerships. And that's what I'll be talking about a little bit more here as we go into my presentation.


Richard: New Haven is a small city of approximately 16,000 people in northeastern Indiana, just southeast of Fort Wayne. And, of course, Indiana enjoying a position in America as the crossroads of America. So, lots of rail activity, a big history of transportation activity in the state and particularly the New Haven, Fort Wayne area. So, that begins with the Maumee River, which runs through New Haven and connects to the Great Lakes. We then have a history of transportation with Lincoln Highway when that road originally opened up, bringing that transportation and freight through, and then of course with the railroads. Primarily we deal with Norfolk Southern. They are the owners and operators of the rails and the tracks running through the city.


Richard: So, this is a screenshot of the city of New Haven as seen from above. You will see the green building in the south central part of the map, that is City Hall. And of course to our Northeast, you see Broadway Street, the main road that runs through our downtown area. And then right there is our major crossing point that Norfolk Southern crosses through. So, the reason they're going to and fro is that to our west, you can't see it here, there is a Norfolk Southern rail yard. So this the situation that we're in, right, this is the reality that we're dealing with. The railroad was here first, we built the city on top of their tracks, so you know, gotta own your part of it! And you'll see of course to our west there, High Street also is a crossing point. We do have two points provided to the citizens that they can use to go over where grade separation was possible. To our East is interstate bypass US 469, which runs north-south. And then to our west is Maplecrest [Road]. So, we do have those options there for great separation opportunities.


Richard: When we decided to, some time ago, do a study and talk about the possibility of grade separation in our downtown area, we very quickly realized it was financially and practically an impossibility. So, in the red you will see the Norfolk Southern right-of-way. Right? We have to honor respect that space, that's the way it is. When we sat down and looked at what we thought would be an aggressive slope that would be within, technically, the compliance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, you see the work that would have to be done in purple there, in those purple lines and boxes. So, right there off the bat, that's most of our downtown area gone, north of that right of way and to the south we're losing a lot as well. And, let's not only talk about the single grade separation we have there getting over the right of way and the track. Look at the work that would have to be done on the adjoining streets. Right? The west and the east-bound streets. So, I mean, financially and practically, this was an impossibility. When we look at something that's a little bit more in the spirit of the law with ADA, that's the yellow boundary taking it even further. Right? And so, in that case, we basically just lose the entirety of downtown and we end up in a park just south of us. [You] can read the facts here, I won't read the slide back to you, but we just lose so much if we decide to pursue great separation on top of all of the financial costs associated with it.


Richard: So, we've identified why a great separation for New Haven wasn't a possibility and an impracticality. Well, what can we do instead? And we found that it was arming our citizens with information. Giving them information that they can use, through a network of sensors that we have partnered with a company out of Canada [to place], called TRAINFO. We partnered with then, there's a sensor network in place, there's going to be signs up letting you know, "Hey! a train is on the way. It's going X fast and would be expected to block the crossing for X long." And, when you give people information they have the ability to make choice. You give them agency! So, this is something that is not only cheaper than grade separation projects (significantly so), it is active, it's in real time, it's getting updates. Once they reach a certain threshold, TRAINFO has plans to, I mean, they're already in talks with Google so that when someone's using Google Maps, or Waze, they can begin to get updates pushed to them as they're driving and getting directions from their map app, which everyone does these days.


Richard: That's the innovation part of it. I want to talk about the partnership part of it, and that is having honest and frank conversations, in good faith, with your railroad partners. In this case, for the city of New Haven, that is Norfolk Southern. So, you bring everyone to the table together, again, in good faith, to discuss practical solutions. And, for us that was sitting down and working with government relations and Norfolk Southern and saying, "Hey, we understand operations are going to continue through the city, the railroads were here first." When we talk about having to stop a train before they go over to the yard, "What about parking east of that Broadway crossing?" That's our main thoroughfare. That's where everyone's going through downtown. "Can you do us that much?" Right, and then so working with the average length of the trains coming to the city, we were able to come to that first and foremost practical solution. That has really done a lot to alleviate the issue. It is truly, and ultimately, about just partnering and doing what you can to have those honest conversations with the railroads.


Richard: 'What surprised us?' We had to adapt a foreign-designed system to work with American railroad crossings and warnings, I don't want to go too much into the weeds there. I'm already over time. 'Challenges we faced?' We discovered the warning system didn't always work as anticipated when we attempted to integrate them into our network of sensors. And, train movement within the rail yards activates the sensors and gives false positives on possibly block crossings. So even when you go with the latest technology, you can still run into these unpredicted issues. And, 'How does New Haven benefit from alternatives?' We save a lot of money [by] not pursuing a great separation projects that would cost sums that would make all of our jaws drop. And then we saw a 21% reduction in vehicle interactions with active crossings which correlated with about a 30% reduction in congestion. Emergency services are also more accurate now. They have real-time information to work with when they have to consider their options for dispatch.

Richard: Our advice to other agencies is to look for those opportunities with technology, and other municipalities- reach out to other cities in similar situations. Right? Same population size and expected traffic, that sort of thing, and just figure out what's worked for them and maybe figure out how that could apply to you. That's another part of that partnership piece. And again, partnerships matter! Bring everyone to the table, including the rail companies, and you've got to work towards those solutions together.


Britni: All right. Thank you, Richard. Really appreciate you presenting [on] how you solved this without huge infrastructure changes [and] without huge infrastructure grants.


This presentation was part of our Town Hall on Blocked Crossings and Long Trains. Want to make sure you don't miss our next Town Hall? Get on our mailing list by emailing connect@railtowns.org or sign up on our home page.

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