WALKER — Given a choice of either closing two railroad crossings or spending $600,000 to put safety upgrades in place, the Walker City Council chose closure Monday night.
Residents affected by the two closures — at Sunset Lane and Mayer Street — made impassioned pleas for the council to keep their crossings open, but city officials said the cost and potential liability was too great a burden for the city.
Mayor Rick Ramsey said the closures were prompted by decade-old warning letters from the state Department of Transportation and Development and two fatal wrecks at another city crossing within the past four years.
The site of the fatal wrecks — Industrial Park Drive — could not be closed because the road provides the only path into the Livingston Parish Industrial Park, where more than 900 workers and countless garbage trucks cross the tracks each day, Ramsey said.
The city has partnered with the state, parish government and Livingston Economic Development Council to provide more than $4.5 million in improvements to that roadway and its crossing.
But the minimal traffic counts at Sunset Lane and Mayer Street, which each serve a neighborhood of a few dozen houses, do not warrant the expense of adding crossbars, lights and warning bells, city officials said Monday.
Ramsey said he also fears that leaving the crossings open could lead to increased liability for the city. Although there have been no reported wrecks at those two crossings, Ramsey said, “It only takes one.”
Both of the fatal wrecks at Industrial Park Drive drew lawsuits, one of which has settled for an undisclosed amount exceeding $5 million, the mayor said. The city was deemed 10 percent at fault in that wreck — a percentage Ramsey fears will only escalate if the city doesn’t heed state and railroad officials’ requests for closures.
Rhonda Falks, who lives on Mayer Street, said she is concerned that closing the crossing there will add a minute and a half to emergency response times in her neighborhood.
“That’s a lot (of time) to me if I’m the one calling 911,” Faulk said. “And I think that’s a lot to anyone here.”
Residents also raised concerns about alternative access to Browden Street if the Sunset Lane crossing is closed. The only other route is through Ballard Road, off Walker Road North, but the Ballard Road bridge has been closed for more than three years after DOTD condemned it due to load rating concerns, Ramsey said.
The bridge has been reconstructed, with concrete reinforcements and guard rails, and should reopen within the week, Ramsey said. The mayor also pledged to widen with stone Ballard and Sunset from 13 feet to 17 feet so that a car and school bus may pass at the same time.
“We give you our word (the crossing) will not be closed until the improvements are made,” Ramsey said after the 4-1 council vote for the closures. The mayor estimated the crossings will close in no less than three months.
Ramsey said Parish President Layton Ricks also had assured him the parish’s road funds could be used to overlay the widened roads with asphalt in the next year or two.
“I know (Ricks) doesn’t control (the parish’s road priority list), but he does have influence over it, and I would think that our council representative from this area, whomever that might be, would be supportive, as well,” Ramsey said.
The mayor said the city also will provide landscaping in addition to the concrete barricades cordoning off the roads.
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