OPINION: Atlanta residents at an impasse over blocked rail crossings

A Norfolk-Southern train travels south close to the Mitchell Street bridge. The Norfolk-Southern route runs north-south through downtown beneath the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), through the Gulch, and then onward to parallel MARTA’s Red/Gold lines south of downtown. Residents in southeast Atlanta have complained of long wait times at railway crossings in their neighborhoods. Jason Getz for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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A Norfolk-Southern train travels south close to the Mitchell Street bridge. The Norfolk-Southern route runs north-south through downtown beneath the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), through the Gulch, and then onward to parallel MARTA’s Red/Gold lines south of downtown. Residents in southeast Atlanta have complained of long wait times at railway crossings in their neighborhoods. Jason Getz for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Michael Mills takes his dogs to the park every day between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m.

The former Dunwoody resident has lived in Lakewood Heights since March 2021, but he likes to walk his three dogs in Grant Park. So he packs them into the car and heads a few miles north.

It didn’t take long for Mills to get stuck at the train tracks that cross Sawtell Avenue Southeast. The first time it happened, he learned the hard way that the train wasn’t going to move anytime soon.

“I go up to the train and I see it is not moving,” said Mills.

He tried to get around it by going north to Hank Aaron Drive but the stopped train was so long that it blocked the crossing at that intersection as well. He ended up driving two miles south to Forrest Park Drive Southeast where he could take the overpass across the tracks. The entire ordeal doubled the length of his usual drive to the park.

He might have shrugged it off — everyone gets stuck by a train sometimes — but when it started happening multiple times in the same week, Mills thought it must be something unique.

A train would sit on the tracks for so long that he could leave for the park, spot the train on the tracks, find a route to get around it, walk his dogs for 30 to 45 minutes and still see the train sitting in the same spot on his way back home.

“It is always just like, will we be able to cross or not?” said Mills. “You can tell as soon as you come around the corner and you see other cars turning around.”

Why was the train sitting there for so long? Was there a train authority taking reports on the delays? Who was responsible?

“I wanted someone to explain,” said Mills. “Or just give me another route.”

Mills queried neighbors in surrounding communities. While some were more inconvenienced than he was, he started to think he was the only one who wished something would be done about it.

One nearby resident commented on Mills’ post on a popular app that the train prevented a medical professional from getting to their house. Another resident described driving home after working a 16-hour shift, getting stuck by the train, falling asleep for 45 minutes and waking up to find the train still in the same spot.

“We never want to inconvenience a member of the community with blocked crossings,” said Thomas Crosson, spokesman for Norfolk Southern in an emailed statement. Crosson said he looked into the matter and found that the trains are being held outside of a nearby railyard until there is available space.

“Our railroad plays a vital role in the nation’s supply chain, helping to move the goods that power our economy,” he said. “In some instances, our trains are held on the track while other rail traffic proceeds ahead. We are working hard to keep our trains moving efficiently and to minimize these types of impacts.”

Now that Norfolk Southern calls Atlanta home, it might not hurt to shore up some goodwill with the locals as it has done in the past.

In November, Norfolk Southern hosted the grand opening its new headquarters in Midtown, the result of a 2018 effort to bring the transportation giant to the city after solidifying a controversial publicly financed redevelopment project in downtown Atlanta.

Last February, Norfolk Southern abandoned plans to build a rail terminal on the plot of land of the former Chattahoochee Brick Company. The Brick Company used convict labor to do backbreaking work and the community hoped the land would be preserved as a memorial to that legacy.

ExploreNorfolk Southern backs out of Chattahoochee Brick development plans

“We pride ourselves on being a good corporate citizen in the communities where we operate,” said James A. Squires, chairman, president and CEO in a company statement announcing that change of plans. The company began environmental remediation to the site in December 2020, two months before the City of Atlanta filed a legal petition to halt construction. Norfolk Southern then withdrew from the project.

Residents in Mills’ neighborhood said the blocked crossings are even more of an inconvenience now because the overpass at McDonough Boulevard Southeast — the closest bridge to get over the tracks — is closed.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has been constructing a new bridge with a pedestrian sidewalk compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act since 2020. But delays caused by utility relocations and right of way negotiations have made it unlikely that the bridge will be completed by early 2022 as originally expected.

In the meantime, Mills said he may raise his concerns in the next Neighborhood Planning Meeting even though he knows he may be in the minority.

Other Atlanta residents like Celina Sargent, who lives in Capitol View, are not on the same page as Mills. The trains, she said, are just a fact of life.

“The trains have always been there but with everything going on, trains are longer,” she said. “We want the supplies but how do people think we get our supplies? They don’t drop from the air.”

Sargent does believe there should be more access to overpasses and she has raised the issue at NPU meetings for years. The newbies, she said, just aren’t used to how things work on the south side of the city.

“I understand that traffic is getting crazy and it is really congested over here but the people who have lived here a long time, we just say, the trains are here,” she said.

Crosson told me the company did not have data on average wait times at rail crossings or the frequency that a particular crossing may be impacted. He did say that members of the community can call the 1-800 number posted at every crossing to report any issues.

We are a culture of consumers. While I’m sure many of us appreciate the goods coming to us via rail transport, waiting 60 minutes for a train to clear the tracks or driving 20 minutes to get around it seems excessive.

Now is a good time for Norfolk Southern to be a “good corporate citizen” in this community as it has been in other Atlanta neighborhoods.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the chronology of events surrounding Norfolk Southern’s withdrawal from the construction of a rail terminal in Atlanta.


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