LEWIS CENTER — The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) has approved a joint petition by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway Company to close the Franklin Street grade crossings in Orange Township.
“Delaware County will issue an ordinance discontinuing the use of the crossing to all vehicular and pedestrian traffic by Dec. 30, 2022,” said a PUCO news release issued last week.
Traffic will be routed 325 feet to the north onto Lewis Center Road, which has active gates and warning light systems at its crossing. The other alternate crossings are Shanahan Road, a mile to the north; and Orange Road, 1.7 miles to the south. They also have flashers and gates.
Sight distances were not considered to be a problem, since the tracks run straight along and past the crossings.
According to PUCO, the crossing at Franklin Street is used by 64 vehicles per day, and it is ranked as the 39th-most hazardous crossing in Ohio. It is a two-lane residential street that has three sets of railroad tracks (two Norfolk Southern, one CSX) with cross bucks and stop signs at the crossings, but no active warning devices. There are four trains using the CSX track daily, and up to 38 per day using the Norfolk tracks. The trains travel at a speed of 40 to 60 miles per hour.
By contrast, the current traffic count at the crossings was given as Lewis Center Road between 8,000-10,000 vehicles per day; Orange Road 13,711 vehicles per day; and Shanahan Road 1,034 vehicles per day.
“In its opinion and order, the Commission determined that local emergency service response times will not be significantly impacted by the closing,” PUCO said. “Based on these factors, the Commission determined there is not a demonstrable need for the Franklin Street crossing to remain open.”
The ruling by PUCO was given on Nov. 30. It noted that Ohio law “requires that a petitioner seeking to close a railroad grade crossing on a rural road must demonstrate that there is not a demonstrable need for the grade crossing to exist.” PUCO had to consider factors such as traffic at Franklin Street and alternate crossings, the increase of traffic, the types of warning devices, and the impact the closure might have on emergency vehicles.
The petition was filed by CSX and Norfolk Southern in January 2019. That April, the Delaware County Board of Commissioners filed a motion to intervene in the case. A public hearing took place that summer. Two years later, the railroads filed a motion for temporary closure of the Franklin Street crossings. This was denied last September.
In October 2021, an evidentiary hearing was held, which included testimony from Delaware County and Orange Township officials. In all, seven witnesses opposed the proposed closure in the unincorporated village. Concerns included emergency response times by Delaware County EMS Medic 3 and the Orange Township Fire Department, which require redundant crossings.
However, CSX disputed those positions.
“CSX stated that during the period when Lewis Center Road was closed west of the Franklin Street crossings for six months of construction, Orange Township and Delaware County’s witnesses testified that there was no evidence of adverse impacts or outcomes for any patients,” the PUCO decision said. That construction took place in 2019.
It was suggested that the Franklin Street crossing should remain open until a potential Home Road overpass is constructed. In this scenario, Home Road would be extended east of U.S. Route 23, crossing the railroad tracks with an overpass and connecting to Lewis Center Road. During testimony, though, it was said “there is a possibility the Home Road overpass will not be built.”
If the Home Road extension were to be completed as described, it would be in 2026 at the earliest.
The commission concluded that while the term “demonstrable need” for a crossing was not legally defined, it had to be more than simply an inconvenience if it were to be closed. Since Franklin Street sees little traffic, “the high costs of enhancing its safety via roadway improvements and the installation of active gates and warning devices are likely not cost-justified,” PUCO said. “Thus, the combination of the low volume of usage and the high-hazard nature of the crossing strongly supports the need for consideration of its closure in accordance with our ultimate goal of increasing the safety of pedestrians and motorists.”
The decision went on to say that “Medic 3 would still be able to meet the national standard for response time in spite of the added (325-foot) distance.”
By Ohio law, PUCO has the authority to close grade crossings in municipalities and rural areas.
“PUCO is responsible for evaluating Ohio’s public grade crossings to determine the need for installing active warning devices,” the commission’s website said. “Since the PUCO began implementing these evaluations, the annual number of train-motor vehicle crashes in Ohio has decreased significantly, from 356 in 1990 to 53 in 2021.”