As rail projects stall, questions arise [Danbury News Times]

January 7, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Danbury News Times on 1/7/2013

REDDING — In 2009, state Department of Transportation officials earmarked $1.48 million to help revamp a railroad crossing near the West Redding train station, a project that called for, among other things, the installation of signal gates to deter pedestrians and motorists from crossing the tracks when a train is approaching.

But the plan has languished, because of — depending on whom you ask — environmental obstacles and Metro North’s ongoing $67 million signal reconstruction project along the Danbury Branch line, which is slowed by delays of its own.

State officials announced Friday that they will look at ways to expedite the modernization project, as questions arise about whether an accident on Dec. 30 between a car and a Metro-North train at that particular crossing could have been averted had crossing gates already been in place.

The grisly crash killed two people and landed two others in the hospital, in critical condition.

“In order to make sure these improvements are made as soon as possible, we would like to set up a meeting with you or your representatives. We want to make sure that what happened Dec. 30 does not happen again,” state Sens. Mike McLachlan, R-Danbury and Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, both members of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, wrote in a letter to state DOT commissioner James Redeker and Howard Permut, president of Metro-North.

Meanwhile, authorities reiterated last week that there is still a long way to go in determining what caused the crash.
According to investigators, the gray Subaru Outback crossed the tracks on Long Ridge Road as the train reached the crossing. It’s unclear whether the driver, 19-year-old Jausheema Perkins, ever saw the oncoming locomotive or had time to react before it slammed into the car, crumpling the roof and shattering its windows.

Marjorie Anders, a railroad spokesperson, said that the train’s engineer recalled that the car’s radio was playing “very loud” as he ran up to examine the wreckage. Perkins’ father has disputed the assertion.

Anders contended that the train blew its horn as it approached the crossing, whose signal lights were already activated, but the engineer did not see the car in time.

Perkins and her boyfriend, Wayne Balacky, 21, had to be extricated by firefighters and were taken to Danbury Hospital. Balacky was pronounced dead a short time later.

Perkins was moved to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she died of her injuries.

The other two passengers in the car, Fakeem Morning, 19, and James Redmond, 21, were both transported to Westchester Medical Center.

According to Federal Railroad Administration records, there have been three accidents at the Long Ridge Road crossing since 1970. The crash on Dec. 31 was the first fatal accident in that time.

While funding for the modernization plan was apparently dispersed in 2009, officials last week did not shed light on why the project hasn’t gotten off the ground since then.

DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said that planners were faced with serious environmental hurdles.

“This reconstruction will relocate the existing railroad crossing approximately 25 feet to the east. The reconstruction will also address drainage issues at the intersection,” Everhart said in an email. “Due to some environmental permit issues, construction is scheduled to commence in the fall of 2014. Some preliminary work has already been done.”

Anders, the Metro-North spokesperson, offered a different analysis of the problem, pointing to the work left to be done on the transit signalization project.

“We can’t put in a crossing gate at the existing location, because we are in the process in a totally separate project, of upgrading the signal system,” Anders said. “If we install a crossing gate at the existing crossing, it will not be compatible with the design of the signalization project, which calls for a grade crossing 25 feet away from the existing one.”

She would not provide a timetable for the project’s completion.

Redding First Selectman Natalie Ketcham said such projects take time to complete.

“I do know, specifically, that the main project that the DOT has had on the drawing board for quite some time involves some significant drainage issues,” Ketcham said Friday. “If they thought they were going to have to put the gates in and next year come back because they’re redesigning the roads, that wouldn’t make sense.”

Ketcham said that she planned to sit in on the proposed talks with DOT officials to examine the Long Ridge Road crossings modernization plan.

“I think clearly that’s the point of having a meeting with DOT to fully assess the status of these projects,” Ketcham said. “I think it’s prudent to discuss exactly what each one has in store.”

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