Studying Rail Crossings

The chairman of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board was in Houston to talk about transportation issues with area leaders. It included a helicopter tour of the freight rail network. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports reducing congestion at railroad crossings has been a goal of Houston's mayor.

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A study found 750 public at-grade crossings in Harris County. The eight county region has more than 1,200 freight rail crossings at street level. The same study by Harris County, the City of Houston and the Port of Houston found that these crossings cause more than 30,000 vehicle hours of delays per day for drivers. In addition to the safety considerations, the delays have an impact on the region's air quality. U.S. Surface Transportation Board Chairman Charles Nottingham saw the problems first hand from the air.

"And of course we did see, Mayor, I don't know how you arranged it, but we did see a stopped train blocking several four lane streets, we saw commuter buses doing u-turns and things that you hate to see in any city, especially the fourth largest city in the country."

Nottingham says other communities around the country are dealing with the same issues. He's optimistic that changes can happen. Nottingham pointed to Chicago, the other poster-child, has he called it for rail congestion.

"They have already put down, between the railroads, privately, the city, the state and the feds about $300 million to start and they're not satisfied, that's probably about 10 percent of what they are going to need."

Houston Mayor Bill White says the city was born where the water meets the road and rail tracks. But he says the area can only continue to grow if neighborhood concerns are met.

"I understand that rail transportation is important but it has to be done safely and with respect to our neighborhoods. And there is no way that we can expand and grow our economy with the consent of the people in this community until we get that right."

Fort Bend County, Harris County and the City of Houston formed a Freight Rail District which is looking at ways to reduce roadway congestion and improve movement of freight trains through the Houston region. The District also has the challenge of finding funding for projects.

Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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