The city of Madison and the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. are poised to resume a fight over closing railroad crossings at three streets on the Near East Side.

Closing the crossings would mean vehicles coming from East Washington Avenue or Williamson Street could no longer cross over the tracks at Blount, Brearly and Livingston streets. It also would be illegal for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the tracks at those locations.

The crossings — which now have signs, lights and bells but no gates — pose safety issues, the railroad says. Engineers must blow whistles when passing through, which the railroad says also affects the quality of life in the area. 

"We have many, many concerns," said Ken Lucht, the railroad's public affairs director.

But city officials argue there is no recent history of accidents at the crossings, that closing three of a dozen gateless crossings in a half-mile stretch of track won't resolve noise problems, and that the crossings are needed because the city is moving to revitalize the former industrial corridor.

"We vigorously oppose the (railroad's) petition," city project engineer Tony Fernandez said. 

The crossings are next to a city bike bath and connect East Washington Avenue to Williamson Street.

The closures "would have a very negative impact on what we're trying to do in the east rail corridor," said Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison, Inc., which promotes the central city. "We're going to have more people living there, more people working there. Closing these crossings would be catastrophic."

The railroad asked the state Office of the Commissioner of Railroads to close the three crossings in April 2009, but hearings have been postponed for various reasons and while the city studied how to proceed with the corridor's Central Park. A hearing is set for Feb. 15-16.

After the hearing, the commission's lawyer will offer a proposed decision, both sides get a chance to comment, and state Commissioner Jeff Plale makes a final decision. The process could take months. 

The railroad's proposal doesn't involve a separate, less-used spur track to the immediate north that starts at Baldwin Street and ends at Madison Gas & Electric.

The city and railroad differ on safety of the main line. State records show a total of four train-vehicle accidents and one injury, and no pedestrian or bicycle accidents, at the three crossings since 1973. There have been no accidents of any kind since 1978.

"There's no proof they are unsafe," said Ald. Marsha Rummel, 6th District, who represents the area.

But Lucht said drivers, cyclists and pedestrians regularly try to beat the train at the crossings.

"We have a lot of near misses," he said. "We want to be proactive. At some point, there's going to be an incident."

Fewer crossings also mean less train whistles, Lucht said, noting engineers must use whistles four times every crossing.

Currently, six to eight trains pass traveling at 10 mph on the main track, Lucht said. The railroad intends to make track improvements to allow speeds of 25 mph in coming years, another reason for the closures, he said.

Closing three crossings won't improve safety or reduce noise much, Fernandez said. Cars would use other ungated crossings and pedestrians and bikers would still cross the tracks on Blount, Brearly and Livingston, but without signs, lights or bells, he said.

The city intends to add gates and other improvements to boost safety and create a "quiet zone" so whistles aren't needed between East Johnson and Blair streets, officials said.

The city budgeted $950,000 to upgrade crossings from South Thornton Avenue to South Ingersoll Street in 2012, and it envisions spending $900,000 at Blount, Brearly, Livingston and Paterson streets in 2013 or 2014, officials said.

The city has also asked the commission to approve a new pedestrian and bike crossing at Few Street for Central Park. Plale has not made a final decision on that request.

Lucht said the city could save nearly $1 million by closing the three crossings.

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