Georgia cops ticketing trains that block traffic

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. -- A $713 parking ticket is a lot for anyone - even the railroad.

Norfolk Southern has been racking up those tickets for blocking traffic through Port Wentworth. Police Chief James Melvin says his officers are writing them at a rate of about three a week.

"We can't put a wrecker on it and tow them off," Melvin said. "(Fines) are pretty much the limit of what we can do to them."

With the Ga. Highway 25 viaduct over Norfolk Southern's rail lines in downtown Port Wentworth shut down, gridlock is becoming unbearable in the west Chatham municipality, commuters and public safety officials say. The problem is that when Crossgate and Grange Roads are blocked by trains, drivers trying to get in and out of Port Wentworth are stuck - and they stay stuck.

According to Port Wentworth police reports, trains often are blocking traffic for 20 minutes or more.

Although there is some question as to whether federal laws protecting interstate commerce allow Port Wentworth to legally fine the railroad, Norfolk Southern has been paying the tickets, Melvin said.

Trains running back and forth across at-grade crossings may frustrate commuters, but Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said they are critical to port business.

And business is booming.

In late October, Terpay said, Norfolk Southern doubled the number of trains going in and out of the Georgia Ports Authority's intermodal transportation facility, where containers unloaded from ships are put onto trains for land shipment.

Those containers are loaded onto train cars on short tracks, about 2,500 feet long, which are hooked up to a departing train one track at a time. The problem, according to Terpay, is that trains end up being as long as 10,000 feet and Crossgate Road is only 5,000 feet from the Port. By the time the second set of cars is hooked up, the road is blocked.

The same trains that frustrate drivers are keeping Savannah's economy vibrant, Terpay said. Norfolk Southern started running two trains in and out of the port, instead of one, because the recovering U.S. economy brought increased traffic in and out of the Port of Savannah during the last three months of 2010.

"These trains are on a tight time schedule to arrive in Atlanta, where each of the freight cars are, based on destination, switched to trains that depart from Atlanta to cities located throughout the United States," Terpay said.

That timetable often is at odds with commuters' schedules. Trains typically are built between 6 and 9 p.m., said Joel Harrell, Norfolk Southern vice president of government relations.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has begun an $11.7 million project to help cope with the increased train traffic. The DOT is building a land bridge over railroad tracks at Ga. 307 to accommodate the ports authority's plans to install more tracks in the area. Ga. 307 runs parallel to Crossgate Road, about 1.5 miles south of Crossgate.

The Ga. 307 viaduct is expected to be complete in March 2012. An 80/20 split of federal and state dollars is funding the project.

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