Olentangy Valley News

Police chief: Railroad tracks will eventually kill

Powell chief pushes for more changes at troublesome crossing, but some proposed solutions have opponents

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Powell Police Chief Gary Vest pulled no punches as he discussed the railroad crossing at the heart of the city.

"This environment, if it goes unchanged, will eventually result in the death of someone," he said.

Vest made the statement Feb. 18 during a community meeting about the crossing after showing a video taken in late November of a close call between two cars and a train.

City officials called the meeting to allow business owners and residents to comment on potential safety improvements in the area of the intersection of state Route 750 and the CSX railroad.

Ohio Rail Development Commission officials have suggested installing a queue cutter traffic signal at the site, but other traffic changes would have to follow for the signal to work properly. The queue cutter would flash a red stoplight to drivers on the west side of the tracks after sensing space was running out immediately east of the tracks, preventing drivers from getting stuck on the rails behind other stopped cars.

City and Rail Development Commission officials agree two traffic changes need to be made in order for the signal to be effective: Left turns from Route 750 onto Depot Street need to be prevented; and a new left-turn lane needs to be constructed at Hall Street.

Powell business owner Elton Sargent said he got caught on the tracks during an early visit to the city. He said the amount of traffic in the area of the train tracks and how quickly it can back up can surprise people less familiar with the intersection.

"The problem, I don't think, is the people who live locally ... it's those of us from the outside coming in for the first time get caught completely off guard," he said.

Sargent said he supported the idea of installing the queue cutter signal and making any traffic changes necessary to ensure it works.

Left turns onto Depot Street already are banned during high-traffic hours, but Vest said more needs to be done to prevent drivers from making that movement. He said drivers often ignore or miss the traffic signs in the area.

"At first they couldn't see the signs (banning left turns), ... then we had too many signs, so we reduced the number of signs and made them bright green -- and they're still doing the same (illegal turn)," Vest said.

At a previous meeting, Vest said Depot Street could be closed off entirely at Route 750, which he called "probably the best" solution. He added that Depot Street also could be designated as a one-way street.

Anne Grayson, co-owner of the Collection furniture store on Depot Street, said she had concerns about the potential traffic changes.

"I think the turning lane at Hall Street is a really positive thing that could help a lot (to reduce) the congestion in Powell," she said. "I'm really concerned about closing Depot Street or making Depot Street one-way."

Grayson said drivers traveling west would have no way to loop back into downtown if Depot Street is closed. She said the change also could hurt business at the five commercial establishments located on Depot Street.

Grayson said right turns onto and off of the street needed to be preserved.

Other city residents said they thought an increased police presence could solve safety problems at the train tracks -- an idea Vest disagreed with.

In December, Powell police issued warnings to the drivers of more than 300 cars that were stopped on the tracks over 21 days. Vest said it's not just bad drivers who are getting caught on the tracks.

"The people we were stopping were not driving under suspension, they didn't have a long line of tickets -- these were just everyday folks getting through town who were getting stuck on this track," he said.

Vest said he could "write a thousand tickets," but it wouldn't prevent cars from getting caught on the tracks.

Vice Mayor Brian Lorenz said while the city has no deadline to install the queue cutter signal, he thinks City Council and the administration are "on notice" to fix the problem before someone is seriously injured.

He said he was not sold on the idea of completely closing off Depot Street at Route 750, but said council would continue to discuss possible solutions.

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