Can Fort Payne afford to have a railroad overpass?

Without the railroad, Fort Payne would not have become a boom town. Although critically important to the nation’s supply chain, trains have become more of a disruption to traffic flow in 2021.

A few Saturdays ago, one train disconnected from the cars it was pulling in at least two places, blocking every crossing in Fort Payne between 20th Street NE and 22nd Street SE. Fort Payne Mayor Brian Baine said he knew there was a problem when he heard the train slow to a stop from his home. This raised alarm among some speculating on Facebook that such a blockage might cost someone’s life if an ambulance is unable to cross in a scenario where seconds count. Furthermore, four of the city’s schools are located on the east side of the railway.

Trains frequently meet on the twin rail extending from “switches” at 5th Street North and near 21st Street SE. These parallel lines of track allow one train to get out of the way so a second train can pass coming from either direction. The process effectively blocks motorists from crossing the tracks for 26 blocks during such exchanges. Baine said a representative from Norfolk Southern met with city officials some time ago and suggested they owned enough land in Fort Payne to potentially install another switch and more diverging parallel track.

Norfolk Southern did not reply to a request for comment.

Baine said he would like to see a proposed railway overpass constructed before his term ends. This would be no small feat given the high cost. An overpass would likely have to start on Grand Avenue to achieve enough room underneath for heavy trucks and the train cars themselves to clear beneath it. One such overpass is in Valley Head at the base of AL Hwy 117, a bridge completed in 2019 at a cost of $4.9 million.

With severe budget tightening the city did earlier this year, such an overpass seems economically unviable. One plan, projected to cost $30 million, would extend Wallace Avenue at the base of Alabama Highway 35, eliminating the hazardous sharp curve commonly called “Joe’s Truck Stop” and extended southward to connect at the South Y on to the southern interchange of Interstate 59. Baine said the city had set aside millions to dedicate matching funds with state and federal partners.

State Sen. Steve Livingston said he and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter “are acutely aware of the infrastructure problems in Fort Payne, particularly Highway 35 and ‘Joe’s Truck Stop’. We have also been made aware of the most recent situation, regarding Norfolk Southern’s railcars blocking intersections throughout Fort Payne. We understand this has been an ongoing problem and have brought both Norfolk Southern and [the Alabama Department of Transportation] to the table to discuss possible paths forward. There has been much discussion surrounding what the proper ‘fix’ is and there will continue to be conversations going forward until all avenues have been explored and discussed at length.”

Livingston said he understands “this is not only a quality-of-life issue but a health and safety issue and we are committed to finding a solution.”

Lawmakers have coordinated with both the current and previous administrations to discuss the project scope and expense, keeping ALDOT and Norfolk Southern involved. One possible way to offset the costs of such an infrastructure project is to pursue grants.

“These are very competitive and heavily sought after,” Livingston said. “Our hope is that the highly anticipated infrastructure bill will provide funding for our rural areas. This remains to be seen, but we are monitoring this closely. We will remain steadfast working with the City and all stakeholders to find a resolution to this ongoing problem.”

The railway running through DeKalb County is operated by Norfolk Southern and is part of the company’s 19,420 miles of track used to transport raw materials, products, and finished goods across the Southeast. The local track connects freight yards in Birmingham to the Debutts Yard in Chattanooga as a portion of the Alabama Great Southern Railroad that has operated between Chattanooga and New Orleans since 1877. Some 3,950 locomotives pull roughly 54,400 freight cars through 22 eastern states, the District of Columbia and portions of Canada.

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