The Ohio Rail Development Commission’s stance on the Franklin Street railroad crossing in the Village of Lewis Center continues to be the crossing would be safer if it were to be closed to traffic.
The commission conducted a study in 2016 identifying the crossing as being redundant because both sides of the railroad have access to Lewis Center Road. The commission’s study also showed the crossing to be unsafe because it lacked crossing signals and gates.
The commission approached Orange Township trustees in June 2017, offering incentives for expediting the construction of the proposed new trail crossings on Orange Road and Lewis Center Road if the township would support the closing.
The commission further enticed support by offering $37,500 for any additional cost the township might incur relative to the closing of the crossing.
Township Administrator Lee Bodnar feels that time is running out and that the commission will come in and close the crossing with or without community support.
“After five years they are going to reach a point, sooner rather than later, of doing something,” he told trustees and residents of Lewis Center. “They don’t want to be the bad guy. They would rather have everybody agree to it.”
Bodnar was asked by Trustee Lisa Knapp to put the subject of the Franklin Street crossing on the agenda for the Monday night’s meeting. He then invited Lewis Center residents to be part of the discussion.
Bodnar said that after corresponding with the commission and having discussions with the township’s attorney, Michael McCarthy, he came to the realization that the commission would close the Franklin Street crossing without the assistance of the local authority, “but they would have to pursue a lengthier, probably less desirable in their eyes, pathway.”
The land the two separate sets of tracks lay upon belongs to CSX and Norfolk Southern railroad companies. Both companies want to close the crossing and have engaged the Ohio Rail Development Commission to facilitate community cooperation.
Bodnar said in his correspondence with the commission, he asked the commission to provide the incentives before the township would agree to the closing of the crossing. He said the commission wasn’t agreeable to the terms.
“To secure the local approval, they are doing this basket of goodies,” Bodnar said. “But they want the closure first, and then they would be glad to follow through with all the goodies.”
In the past, residents of the village have expressed their preference of leaving the crossing open because when traffic is backed up, they have the second exit out of the village.
However, what was expressed by residents of the village Monday night showed that there is more to the story than having a second way out of the village during rush hour. Residents expressed that if the crossing is closed, it will disrupt their way of life, their culture.
“This is our village,” said Stefan Polihronopoulos, one of the residents of the village who is very much in support of leaving the crossing open. “It connects one part (of the village) to the other. There are neighbors on one side that communicate with the other. There are kids that go to school that live on both sides. School buses use that crossing.”
The commission said its report showed the crossing to be unsafe.
“I’ve been here for only 11 years and I’ve never seen any safety issues with kids around,” Polihronopoulos said.
Knapp asked Polihronopoulos if the village got a lot of cut-through traffic, which was highlighted in the study conducted by the commission.
Polihronopoulos said, “No.”
Teresa Wickline, who lives on Church Street in the village, said she was in favor of leaving things the way they are in terms of the crossing.
“Why can’t we do what we’ve been doing?” she asked.
Looking for possible options, Knapp doing a quick search on her smartphone found that the cost to install crossing signals and gates would cost $250,000.
Wickline said she would be in favor of the crossing gate over closing the crossing.
Orange Township trustee meetings are held the first and third Mondays of the month at the township hall, 1680 E. Orange Road, Lewis Center. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. For information, call the township offices at 740-548-5430.
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.