Ohio responders reopen fire station to avoid frequent trains

The railroad crossing has taken valuable time away from heart attacks, fires

Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — Fire Chief Marc Zingarelli remembers sitting in the passenger seat of a fire truck stopped at a railroad crossing gate in his city as he and the rest of his crew waited for a train to pass, watching the flames from the burning house on the other side of the track leap higher.

Ditto that frustration for Police Chief G. Shawn Baer, who was among the officers who were trapped on one side of a blocked track after a colleague radioed that he was in trouble in a fight and needed immediate backup. A State Highway Patrol commander outside the city was the first to get to him.

Stand in the middle of the fire department's kitchen and ask the men about how a Norfolk Southern rail line cuts off the south side of the city, and the stories of delays and frustrations pour out.

Fire Department Capt. Arron Kerns eventually walks to a whiteboard on the wall, grabs a red marker and draws a picture of a highway overpass. "I don't know. What's that thing?" he asked.

Circleville officials, for the first time in decades, have gotten serious about trying to find the money for an overpass over one of the city's 19 rail crossings. That is not a cheap plan: Similar projects in Ohio cities over the past decade have ranged from $6 million to $37 million, according to Ohio Department of Transportation data, and there is no specific pot of state or federal money set aside for them.

So Circleville leaders have come up with a temporary solution: By the end of the year, an old fire station on Court Street on the south side of the track will reopen with a minimal crew. One ambulance and one engine will run from there. With a budget that dipped below $600,000 in 2006, a second station has been impossible for more than a decade. Now, the budget is back up to almost $742,000 and the staffing level is back to normal: 15 full-time and six part-time firefighters.

The department made 3,267 runs in 2015. Although it can't easily track how many are on the south side of the track, Zingarelli said he knows the second station is necessary.

"It won't be enough for the big stuff, but one engine will buy us a little time," Zingarelli said. "When someone's in cardiac arrest or a house is burning down, those few minutes of response time make a difference."

Mayor Don McIlroy hopes the city will find a long-term solution soon. Norfolk Southern wants to close some of the crossings in the city — perhaps as many as four. When a railroad closes crossings, it must compensate the city. Negotiations between the Ohio Rail Development Commission, the railroad and city officials are underway.

The closure of crossings also would free up federal money that Circleville could put toward an overpass, said Matthew Dietrich, executive director of the commission, which administers Federal highway-safety funds.

"When we close some crossings and not have to upgrade safety and warning devices there, we can use that money elsewhere," Dietrich said.

Deciding which crossings to close and helping cities figure out whether an overpass is a possibility is serious work, he said.

"It's a balancing act," Dietrich said. "We try to make crossings as safe as possible, as efficiently as possible in way that make the most sense in a community."

The project is taking on urgency in Circleville because Pickaway County has several development projects underway on the south side and is poised for an economic boom. Already, as many as 38 trains pass through on what is considered a vital main line for Norfolk Southern. Some trains generate from the intermodal terminal at Rickenbacker Inland Port in northern Pickaway County. And more trains are coming, said Dave Pidgeon, spokesman for the railroad's region that includes Ohio.

"Intermodal is the future of how freight will move in the United States," Pidgeon said, "And Columbus and Circleville sit in the middle of our heartland intermodal corridor. I can tell you we are preparing to meet future demand."

He said the negotiations involving the railroad, the city and the rail commission as to which crossings to close all focus on safety; fewer crossings mean less risk to the public.

McIlroy said he hopes to find out soon how much money will be available from the railroad, and which specific crossings are recommended for closure. There would be public hearings and a City Council vote before anything was finalized. Then, in the fall, he plans to ask state legislators to help him secure funding for the overpass. He thinks it could take as much as $6 million, and he wants one built by 2018.

"This is a safety issue for anyone who lives in Circleville or who visits here," McIlroy said. "We have to finally address it."

Copyright 2016 The Columbus Dispatch

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