Time to revisit public expense of railroads
In 1836, long before interstates and automobiles, settlers jumped at the proposition.
The new railroad linked this area to states east and west, north and south, facilitating trade and making Decatur a prime spot for businesses. The railroad company was Decatur's largest employer for 40 years.
The equation that so delighted early residents keeps changing.
CSX Transportation runs 30 trains a day through Decatur and has begun a construction project that will increase that number. Even if the trains were always moving, they would cause automobile congestion. As it is they often sit idle, blocking one of the four overpasses in the city.
Despite the upcoming increase in railroad traffic, a CSX spokesman said the railroad has no plan to pay for another overpass.
"It's not something we do readily. We have to have a business return on our investment," Gary Sease said last week. "Sometimes an overpass that benefits motorists doesn't have a business return for us."
The economic factors that insulated railroads from meaningful oversight in 1836 are no longer compelling. CSX is an important part of our community, but it exacts a high price. That price is in the form of tax money — state and local governments have to foot the bill if they need an overpass — but it also takes the form of lost lives.
Exactly what caused paramedics Tommy Allen Allred, 26, and Chastity Miller, 29, to drive their ambulance into the path of a CSX train Thursday is unknown. What we do know is that the track had no crossing guards.
Cash-strapped Alabama towns and counties have no way to install crossing guards. In the absence of crossing guards, people die.
CSX, which had record earnings last quarter, derives a tangible benefit from its increased rail traffic. That benefit is paid for by the public. The time has come for Congress to re-visit the privileged status of railroad companies. They should foot the bill for crossing guards. They should pay at least some of the costs associated with overpasses.
Mr. Sease is correct that CSX has no economic incentive to build overpasses. The same could be said of crossing guards. CSX's conclusion is that it should not be stuck with the cost of such public benefits. Our conclusion is different. It is time that Congress passed laws making sure that costs associated with rail traffic are borne by their primary beneficiary, the railroad.
Such legislation would minimize congestion in Decatur and North Alabama. It would also save lives.