As published in the Record Journal Friday November 9, 2012
WALLINGFORD — Town officials have questions about preliminary designs for rail crossings that include median dividers that would limit or eliminate access to some commercial driveways.
Town Engineer John Thompson said Thursday that he had reviewed plans from the state Department of Transportation for seven redesigned rail crossings as part of the New Haven-to-Springfield high-speed rail line and wrote a letter this week expressing his concerns.
State plans call for “non mountable curb islands” down the middle of several streets as they approach the tracks. Thompson said he understands the reasoning behind the curb islands — to prevent drivers from using the opposite lane to get around the crossing gates — but he’s worried they could slow down emergency vehicles.
“Even when the gates go up, it takes time for traffic to dissipate,” Thompson said. “Emergency vehicles can use the opposing lane with lights and siren. The median would have a negative impact. They would be trapped behind the waiting vehicles.”
The medians are not large, concrete Jersey barriers, but are similar to a raised curb, according to DOT Project Manager John Bernick. Plans for one of the crossings call for a 60-foot-long center island.
“They’re high enough to bottom out a passenger car, but I believe an emergency vehicle with high enough clearance could get over it if they had to,” he said.
In his letter Thompson said that the Fire Department had come up with two suggestions for alleviating the problem, including an emergency vehicle sequence that would use traffic lights to open up Hall Avenue for passage or the inclusion of an emergency vehicle travel lane on Hall Avenue that could be used to bypass traffic. The state has also proposed closing some commercial driveways along the rail route. Other businesses could be affected because the medians would prevent patrons from making a left-hand turn.
“Part of my job as town engineer is to make sure the proposals are not adversely affecting local businesses,” Thompson said.
One of the affected businesses would be the Dairy Queen at the corner of Ward Street and Route 5. The preliminary plans call for a median divider running along Ward Street between Route 5 and the railroad tracks. The barrier means drivers couldn’t make a left-hand turn out of Dairy Queen’s rear parking lot.
“It would be detrimental to business,” said Dairy Queen owner Ron Sotere. “I’m absolutely against it. I’ve been here 50 years and we’ve never had a problem.”
Bernick said the medians were part of an increase in safety measures along the upgraded rail line. Municipalities can apply for a quiet zone waiver, which means trains won’t blow the horn each time they approach a crossing. In lieu of the horn, additional safety measures, such as the median curb islands, are required.
“The additional safety measures make up for the fact that the train horn wouldn’t sound,” Bernick said. “The safety remains the same or better.”
Bernick said the plans are preliminary, not final, and there will be opportunity for public comment this winter or next spring.
Thompson said he looks forward to discussions with the state.
“We’ll continue to work with them so we’re all on the same page,” he said. “This project is a big deal. It’s going to be around for a long time.”