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Commission approves crossing safety agreement

Railroad crossing where four were killed Dec. 5 had been slated for safety improvements for 15 months
News Editor
   The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners recently approved an agreement with the Oregon Department of Transportation Rail Division to conduct safety improvements to three Culver-area railroad crossings, including one on Feather Drive that proved deadly three weeks ago.
   In a unanimous vote as part of their consent agenda last Wednesday, the commissioners placed a stamp of approval on plans that have been in the works since September of 2000 to improve crossings on Jericho Lane and Feather Drive.
   On those crossings, approaching-train signals and automatic gates will be installed along with guardrails that will align roadways widened to 28 feet. Upon completion of these safety improvements, King Lane will be closed as part of the agreement -- a decision many nearby residents have opposed.
   On Dec. 5, four people were killed on the Feather Drive crossing when their car slid across ice into a passing train, claiming the lives of Sandy Roe and three of her children: Jason, 15, Tina, 14, and Devin, 6.
   "I think this adds urgency too it," said Craig Reiley, ODOT's Rail Division Crossing Safety Manager. "It's what we're doing all the time. We're trying to avoid these situations from happening."
   The three safety improvements have been in the works for 15 months, but won't be completed until June at the earliest, Reiley said.
   ODOT has been ordered to improve railroad crossings and close as many of them as possible through a statutory mandate.
   A diagnostic team reviewed the Feather Drive crossing on Sept. 19, 2000 and determined that it had two blind sight quadrants. The average number of vehicles crossing it was calculated at 503 per day, while 11 freight trains travel over Feather Drive.
   Before the Dec. 5 tragedy, two car-train collisions were recorded at the crossing over the last decade, resulting in one injury and the death of a dog.
   Reiley said he wasn't sure if the improvements could have prevented the Dec. 5 accident because of the icy conditions that caused it.
   "We're always going to hear, `You should have known that was going to happen,' " he said. "There's a lot of places where we, as motorists, can do things to get ourselves in trouble and tangled up in a train. We're trying to prevent these things from happening."
   Jefferson County Sheriff Jack Jones, who responded to the Dec. 5 accident, said the safety improvements could have helped prevent the tragedy, but there were too many contributing factors to pinpoint a single cause that led to the collision.
   "Certainly, if you had enough forewarning you could start stopping further back," Jones said. "Controls could have helped certainly."
   The average speed of vehicles traveling over the tracks is 50 miles per hour, and the lack of a stop sign plus a nearby home that partially obstructs the view of oncoming trains contributes to the danger on Feather Drive.
   "People are used to just driving through it," Jones added. "A flashing light lets people know a train is coming. But accidents happen in such different ways and there's so many contributing factors."
   One vehicle-train collision resulting in a single fatality has been recorded during the last decade at the Jericho Lane crossing, which averages 365 vehicles per day. King Lane, where no accidents have been recorded the last 10 years, averages 77 vehicles per day.
   Ninety percent of the project will be funded with federal dollars while the other 10 percent of the estimated $300,000-$350,000 cost, Reiley said, will come from ODOT's Grade Crossing Protection Account.
   With approval of the agency agreement with Jefferson County, ODOT officials hope to have the contract bidding process for roadway improvements completed by mid-January. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company, which owns the railroad, will install the automatic crossing gates and warning lights.
   The improvements could take two-three months, Reiley said.
   The warning signal and crossing guard will be activated 20 seconds before the train reaches the road. The guardrails will be installed to protect vehicles from striking the crossbucks and signals.