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Butler County lawmaker says blocked crossing bill designed to get railroad company 'attention'

Published By Journal-News on October 29, 2021
Thomas Hall In The News

Ohio Rep. Thomas Hall said he didn’t want to “go down this legislative route,” but he said railroads need to be held accountable for blocking crossings for long periods of time.

And House Bill 361 is designed “to get the railroad’s attention,” the Madison Twp. Republican said.

While other bills designed to fine railroads for blocking railroad crossings have been thrown out in federal court, Hall said he and Rep. Jessica Miranda, D-Forest Park, tried to draft a bill “that is not arguably protected federally by the statutes.”

HB 361 would require a railroad company to submit to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio an incident report each time a train blocks a crossing for more than 5 minutes to the hindrance of traffic. The bill also proposes steep fines: $5,000 for a first violation and $10,000 for subsequent violations.

Hall said many of his constituents face this issue “on almost a daily basis.”

ExploreArea lawmakers want steep fines for railroads when crossings are blocked

Hall and Miranda testified this week on their bill in the House Transportation and Public Safety Committee. In addition to saying a 215-home neighborhood in St. Clair Twp. has been trapped for hours on multiple occasions as all three routes out are over tracks, Hall said a family in his 53rd House District just two weeks ago was blocked for more than 60 hours â¿¿ Friday evening to Monday morning. He said the train was waiting for a new crew.

“I have with me today logs and information that were provided to me by people from my district of blocked crossings,” Hall said during his testimony. “These are people trying to do the simple things, like take their kids to school or sports, get home from work or run to the store â¿¿ all not being able to because of the blocked crossings they encounter.”

He also testified that first responders have also been delayed getting to emergencies.

“I am not here today (Tuesday) to object to the railroad’s purpose, but I am here as a voice for the many residents in my district alone who face this issue on almost a daily basis,” Hall said during testimony. “I am here today to stand with the people from all across Ohio who face this problem and if I say it once I will say it again, I am here today to find solutions to this matter as I am remised to have to go down this legislative route to get the railroads attention.”

Under current law, the fine is $1,000 per incident, but local court records show railroads are fined below that amount.

Hamilton Municipal Court, since 2012, has issued nearly three dozen citations to one of the two freight companies that travel Butler County. Collectively, the court has fined both nearly $16,000 and most fines are under $400. In Fairfield Municipal, there are three dozen cases since 2017, and more than $7,100 in fines have been collected. Most fines are $250.

House Transportation and Public Safety Committee member Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, R-Perrysburg, called this issue a “David vs. Goliath battle” against the railroads as “our small-town communities (are) going up against an established entity.” But the issue is a Catch-22.

“The railroads and the folks that work on our railroads, they’re important to our commerce, they’re important to our economy. There’s a lot of positive things our railroads bring to the table,” Ghanbari said. “But along those lines, the railroads, just like all businesses, should be a good neighbor and it seems like to me there’s some disconnect there.”

Hall said he’s received “excuses” from the railroad companies about why there are delays and “no solutions.” Hall said trains have increased from an average length of 8,500 feet years ago to now 14,000 feet with multiple engines to help them move along.

CSX Transportation spokesperson Sheriee Bowman previously told the Journal-News the company has no comment on the proposed bill, but did say the company “is proud of our long-standing, cooperative and productive working relationship with public officials in Ohio.”

Bowman also said they are ready to work with public officials to review CSX operational concerns “that allows efficient, sustainable, and essential freight rail transportation to continue serving Ohio industries while minimizing impacts to citizens.”

Norfolk Southern spokesman Jeff DeGraff previously told the Journal-News his company does not comment on proposed legislation. However, he said Norfolk Southern “makes every effort to minimize the time that trains interrupt motor vehicle traffic at railroad crossings.”

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