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Railroad tracks and access to river remain a hot issue
CROP Monique Tracks
LOCAL RESIDENT Monique Hooker makes a point about accessing public land by crossing railroad tracks at places other than dedicated crossings during a listen-ing session held in DeSo-to on Thursday, April 21.

Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Yash Wadhwa confirmed last week that he will join a group of officials examining more than two dozen locations in western Wisconsin, as possible additional railroad crossings to create more access to public lands along the Mississippi River.

The issue of limited access to the river began, when Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad police, started issuing warnings for trespassing to outdoor enthusiasts when they tried to cross the tracks at places other than dedicated crossings.

Wadhwa said representatives from BNSF will join officials from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner’s Office, the Federal Railway Administration and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the tour of potential crossing sites.

The group will evaluate “each and every site” over a period of two days for its suitability as a new designated crossing to aid with expanding access to public lands along the river, the railroad commissioner explained. The plan is to cover sites in the northern half of the 220-mile corridor on the first day and then view sites in the southern half on the second day.

The second step in the process will be to finalize recommendations on the locations for additional crossings and then hold public information meetings with a map showing those locations, according to Wadhwa. The third step will include getting cost estimates for the proposed crossings and figuring out who will share in paying for them.

“Everything should be completed and we should have something this fall,” Wadhwa said.

Once a plan of action is created, it will be presented at listening sessions.

Wadhwa noted that BNSF knows what concerns people are expressing. The railroad commissioner said there will be a future opportunity to meet with local residents to gather input, but not at this point in time. The plan is to look at all the possible additional crossings and determine which are reasonable and cost effective.

Wadhwa acknowledged that there are people that believe restoring the right to cross the tracks at places that are not dedicated crossings is the right way to address the problem. However, he also believes there is a mixed feeling on the approach and some would favor adding dedicated crossings.

The railroad commissioner said of State Representative Lee Nerison’s Assembly Bill 876 passed in the last legislative session “there were a lot of people against it.” AB 876 would have restored the right of the public to cross railroad tracks anywhere.

Wadhwa believes from a safety point of view it is safer to cross at dedicated crossings. Of the current effort underway, the railroad commissioner believes it’s a good first step.

The railroad commissioner stated that BNSF has been in contact with state legislators from the area. However, as of June 1, Nerison had not spoken with anyone from the railroad, although some staff had briefly spoken with officials from BNSF. In an interview in late May, Shilling indicated she had not spoke with anyone from the railroad either.

“Everybody is aware of what people think should be done or the views they have expressed,” Wadhwa said.

For his part, Nerison said he is waiting to see what the railroad company proposes. He is skeptical of the idea that a couple of dozen new dedicated crossings in the 220-mile corridor will address the need to cross the tracks elsewhere in that area.

Meeting is needed

“BNSF needs to meet, sit down and discuss this exact bill (AB 876), get some negotiations going on it” Nerison said. “It might (turn out to) be a little different.

“It’s a big issue out here,” Nerison said. “I don’t go any place where people don’t come up and say ‘thank you for what you’re doing and keep on fighting for this’.”

Nerison noted that although this issue has started along the Mississippi River, it has the potential to affect many other areas in the state if railroads start to enforce crossing tracks as trespassing and begin writing tickets. The local state representative noted there are 123 DNR state properties that are split by railroad tracks.

“It started on the river because of the ice fishermen, but it will affect lots more people than that,” Nerison said. “What happens when you’re pheasant hunting and your dog crosses the tracks? Are you supposed to go four miles back to a crossing?”

Like so many people familiar with the situation of crossing the railroad tracks, Nerison doubts the dangers are as serious as some in the railroad industry would represent them to be.

“I’d rather cross the railroad tracks than Highway 35 to get to the tracks,” Nerison said. “That’s probably more dangerous.”

Intent to walk across

Nerison emphasized that the bill passed in the assembly distinctly specified that the intent was to have people walk directly across the tracks to cross them, not to walk up and down the tracks.

“The number of people hit by trains that are going fishing has to be so slim,” Nerison said.

As for the railroad police actually writing tickets, Nerison thinks about it.

“The first ticket he writes, it’s going to be a war,” Nerison said.

Nerison also believes there will be a tickets written.

“If they’re not going to write a ticket, why have a cop?” Nerison asked.

Shilling spoke in May on the subject and had similar ideas about the situation.

The local state senator understood the railroad was still doing an inventory of crossings and looking for crossings that might address access needs in popular areas. However, like Nerison, Shilling is not sure this is the right route to take. She referenced the two listening sessions she held in DeSoto and Stoddard earlier this spring with the railroad commissioner and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official present.

“We heard it over and over at the listening sessions,” Shilling recalled. “Twelve or even 20 (new) crossings won’t solve the problems (with access).”

Both Shilling and Nerison are ready to reintroduce the legislation in January. Shilling along with State Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Kathleen Vinehout (D-Eau Claire) were sponsors of the Senate Bill 734 the companion bill to Nerison’s assembly bill. However, the senate bill never got a hearing and died in committee without getting a vote in the senate.

“We will reintroduce the legislation in January, if there is no satisfactory resolution between the sportsmen’s group, the railroad and the railroad commissioner,” Shilling said.

Shilling was quick to praise the new railroad commissioner for attending the listening sessions in April.

“Yash came over and heard a lot firsthand about the situation,” Shilling said. “It’s important to sit and listen face-to-face with sports people, who fish, hunt and trap it. It helped personalize it.”

Like Nerison, Shilling believes there’s a bigger question than just adding crossings along the Mississippi.

“The DNR has ground all over the state,” Shilling pointed out.

Shilling acknowledged that the railroad emphasized safety as the primary consideration. She also sympathized with engineers, who must see tragic death and unfortunately must deal with it.

“I don’t want to minimize the impact (on engineers) of the fatal accidents,” she said.

However, she believes many of the deaths on the railroad track are the result of suicides or people in altered states, possibly due to consumption of drugs or alcohol.

“It comes down to commonsense,” Shilling said. “People want access to fish and hunt on public land. It’s common sense, like crossing roads.”

Shilling also acknowledged that feelings locally were intense about the issue.

“People feel very deeply about it,” she noted. “They are passionate over here about access to public lands. There is a feeling of shared ownership of lands and folks feel they are being cut off from public lands. That ownership feels threatened.”

Nerison doubted there was adequate input from the public. The assemblyman questioned the ultimate effect of having 16 to 18 more crossings in the 220-mile corridor. He also pointed out the cost to construct the crossings would be enormous.

Nerison, like Shilling, is ready to bring up the bill  again if necessary.

“I think the support is there,” he said. “It was too new, when we brought it up last time. We had it in the budget and thought the governor would support it.”

Nerison is trying to get a meeting together with BNSF. Nerison also wanted to go with the group to look at the proposed crossings. He feels the ones who use the land and need access are not involved with the process.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work with bureaucrats doing it,” Nerison said. “What’s that going to solve?”

More local involvement

Nerison thinks there needs to be more involvement from the local community.

“They’re not being honest,” Nerison said. “There’s not enough negotiation going on. We need some upfront negotiation to get something everybody can live with.”

It’s not just Shilling and Nerison who are concerned with the issue or ready to act in the next legislative session if the issue is not satisfactorily resolved.

Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Eau Claire) was a cosponsor of the senate companion bill and will do it again it is not resolved.

Furthermore, Vinehout introduced three bills that were not heard in the last session that directly address the powers of the railroad police. SB 791 would remove all state authority for railroad police to exercise police powers to issue citations or arrest people. The railroad would have security guards, like other companies, at that point. SB 792 would create a complaint process for railroad police actions, creating some oversight. Finally, SB 793 would require the railroad police to keep records for citations and arrests and make them available to open records requests. She will re-introduce all three bills in the next session.

The other cosponsor of the senate bill Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) could not be reached for comment.

The railroad company has been pretty silent publicly on the topic. However, BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth did answer some questions  through e-mail.

McBeth echoed the major railroad company point that safety is the primary concern. This is also a point Railroad Commissioner Yash Wadhwa made at the listening session.

“For BNSF, safety is paramount. We want to prevent all incidents from occurring on the railroad,” McBeth wrote. “Across our network, we work to raise public awareness about safety. The safest, legal place to cross railroad tracks is at a designated crossing. 

“In response to interest in more areas for crossing the railroad tracks, we are looking at the potential for additional crossings in that (Mississippi River) corridor,” according to McBeth. “That involves working with the state agencies to evaluate specific locations for additional crossings. That process is underway.

“According to the Federal Railroad Administration, nine people died in Wisconsin last year, while trespassing on railroad property,” McBeth wrote. “I can’t speak to individual incidents or circumstances surrounding them, but one incident on the railroad is one too many.”

A review of the FRA website showed that eight people died while trespassing on railroad property in 2015. Two were on BNSF tracks along the Mississippi River. One was a man found unconscious down an embankment from the track in February of 2015 in Peppin County. The other was an 18-year-old Mondovi girl who was killed in Alma by a train, as she crossed the track. Her companion told authorities they were going fishing. However, testimony at the Shilling listening sessions contradicted the fishing claim based on observation of rescue squad members who responded.

Those two deaths and a 2013 death in Sparta appeared to be the only three deaths of trespassing people on railroad property in the entire Mississippi River rail corridor for the years 2012, 2013,  2014 and 2015.

The eight deaths of railroad trespassers in 2015 statewide was twice the highest number for the other years, which was four. There were no deaths of people trespassing on railroad property in those years for LaCrosse, Vernon, Crawford or Grant counties, according to a FRA database.

“The safest place to cross railroad tracks is at a designated crossing where diagnostics have occurred that evaluate a number of factors before a crossing is installed,” McBeth explained. “In response to public interest in additional access, BNSF is working with relevant agencies in the state to consider additional legal crossings. BNSF works with the landowner or the agency involved to install a crossing, as the crossings are for the public, not the railroad. Those agencies would represent the public in that process, and that evaluation is underway. Additionally, we have been meeting with elected officials who have heard from the public on this issue as well.”

 The railroads gained the right to bar people from crossing tracks at places other than dedicated crossings when language to that effect was included in a 2005 state budget bill.