A new traffic signal and a partial street closure are among the ideas Powell city officials are considering to prevent cars from stopping on the CSX railroad tracks west of the Four Corners intersection.
Although blocking the railroad tracks is illegal, heavy traffic conditions often lead to violations, according to city officials. Eastbound traffic on state Route 750 can back up well past the tracks, leading drivers to stop on the rails as they wait.
A driver who was caught on the tracks in November had to drive on the sidewalk, striking a pedestrian gate, to avoid an oncoming train, Powell police reported.
Powell City Council's Development Committee met with Matthew Dietrich, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission, last week to discuss potential solutions to the problem. Dietrich reiterated the state agency has recommended installing a queue-cutter traffic signal, closing Depot Street at Route 750 and creating a left-turn lane at the route's intersection with Hall Street.
"We're designing what we think is the kind of the best, safest solution given the circumstances," he said, adding the agency was willing to be flexible with the city
Queue-cutter signals turn red if they sense a lack of space in front of the tracks that would lead to a vehicle blocking them. He said if eastbound cars are able to turn left on Depot Street, it would confuse the signal because it would appear that traffic was lessening each time someone turned onto the street.
The agency proposed a dedicated left-hand turn lane at Hall Street to prevent Route 750 traffic from coming to a standstill when a driver wants to turn at Hall Street.
City Engineer Rob Rice said the city's administration agrees the proposals for Depot and Hall streets would make the queue-cutter signal work more smoothly.
"I think to not do either of these in some fashion directly affects the effectiveness of the queue cutter," Rice said.
He said, however, businesses in the Depot Street area likely would take exception to the plan to close the street off.
Councilman Jon Bennehoof said the city could put up signs to show residents another route to Depot Street. He said public safety should trump economics in the discussion.
"I think we're on notice," Bennehoof said. "It's clear that there's a serious issue there. I'll be unpopular and say businesses, I don't think, want blood on their hands. ... I think we ought to do whatever temporary measures (are possible)."
He suggested council consider barring all left turns onto Depot Street as soon as possible.
The city has experimented with banning left turns onto Depot Street during certain hours and posting police in the area. Officials said neither action stopped drivers from blocking the tracks.
Police Chief Gary Vest said officers have approached hundreds of drivers stopped on the train tracks since the close call in November. He said drivers commonly tell officers they did not know blocking the tracks was illegal even though signs warning drivers of the law are posted in the area.
Vest said some drivers also flout the rush-hour prohibition on left turns onto Depot Street, despite posted warnings. He said the city could designate Depot Street as a one-way street before installing a queue cutter as a possible solution.
"One-way is the cheap alternative, (but) the barricade or cul-de-sac ... is probably the best," he said.
Dietrich said Powell's crossing creates unique challenges because of the amount of traffic congestion created in the area during rush hour. He said any solution to the problem will have drawbacks.
One potential hurdle is the cost of the queue-cutter project.
The Ohio Rail Development Commission has offered to aid with the cost of design and installation of the new signal, estimated at $94,000. The city likely would have to pay for any improvements outside of the railroad right-of-way, such as the barricade at Depot Street and the new turn lane at Hall Street.
Friction with businesses in the Depot Street area could be another drawback. The committee agreed to meet with local businesses in February to get input on the possible traffic changes in the area.
In other action at its first meeting in 2014, Powell City Council:
• unanimously elected Councilman Jim Hrivnak as the city's new mayor. Hrivnak had served as the city's vice mayor from 2010-13.
• unanimously elected Councilman Brian Lorenz as the city's new vice mayor. Lorenz has served on council since 2010.
• unanimously approved the annexation of 60.23 acres along Saw-mill Parkway into the city from Liberty Township. The land will house the Shoppes at Wedgewood shopping center, anchored by a Target store, and a future expansion of Mount Carmel Health System.