The wrong side of the tracks

Federal officials are pressuring the city to close off the popular Talmage Avenue railroad crossing

Steven Sworski remembers when the smoke from locomotives drifted through his backyard. He can still picture the guy who came out of a little shack to signal a train approaching the Talmage Avenue crossing just up the street from his neat two-story house.

“The whole area used to have corn,” he recalls. “It looked like Iowa,”

The hill near which Sworski’s house sits stands out in the flat residential landscape around the crossing, a few blocks from Tuttle Elementary School. The arrow-straight railroad line, dating to the 19th century, is elevated at a diagonal angle across SE Como between rail yards in St. Paul and Northeast Minneapolis.

Over the years, Talmage has become an all-purpose family, dog walking, jogging, bike trail, and vehicle route for those hoping to avoid traffic on busy Como and E. Hennepin avenues. “A lot of families in the summer walk kids to the crossing to watch the trains go by,” says longtime SE Como homeowner Lila Smith. “It’s a neighborhood tradition.”

The Talmage crossing is the last of what was once a handful of at-grade crossings in the neighborhood. The other streets are now closed and dead-ended at the railroad embankment—a fate that awaits Talmage, as well, should the city get its way.

“Having a pleasant quiet residential street the length of the Como SE neighborhood increases our sense of community,” Smith says. “People of all ages walk along Talmadge Ave.: grandparents, babies in strollers, small children, students, and empty-nesters greet their neighbors, share news, and enjoy the gardens along the way.”

Closing the crossing, she added, “would cause significant detours of five blocks for walkers, joggers, schoolchildren, voters, bikes, students, fire trucks, police, ambulances, and cars, and cause congestion.”

But with new federal legislation pressuring city officials to close down Talmage and other at-grade crossings, neither tradition nor convenience may be enough to keep it open.

Saving lives or saving money?
Residents and members of SECIA (the SE Como Neighborhood Improvement Association) were startled this summer to discover that the city was in the process of approving closure of the crossing. The city public works staff had apparently suggested the closure to a representative of the Ft. Worth–based BNSF (Burlington Northern Sante Fe) Railroad. The move came in response to federal legislation that requires upgrading, or closing, crossings for safety.

As many as 400 deaths occur each year at the nation’s 250,000 railroad crossings, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. BNSF has worked to reduce that number through education, technology, warning devices, and maintenance, but the railroad hasn’t been afraid to close crossings, either. In 2000, for instance, it closed 635 of them nationwide.

But Smith argues that safety concerns are exaggerated; the last accident at the Talmage crossing was in 1981. And none of the last four collisions has been fatal. “So, it’s not so much a safety issue, but the railroad wants to save money.”

At an October neighborhood meeting attended by more than 50 residents, most said they wanted the crossing to remain open. City engineer Jack Yuzna apologized to the residents for having pushed for closing the crossing, saying he was unaware that the matter would generate such controversy.

Yuzna promised to take their protests into consideration, study the options, look at funds for upgrading the crossing, and report back to the community in early February. “What I heard here is an important aspect of what we’re doing,” he said, and he was “hearing a leaning to full access” at the crossing. But how to make that happen remains an open question.

At issue is the money to upgrade the crossing. Federal funds would be available if the crossing is closed, Yuzna explained, but scarce city tax dollars would have to be allocated if the city chose to agree with the neighborhood and simply upgrade the crossing.

SE Como homeowner and historian Connie Sullivan said the city has allocated railroad crossing improvement funds in higher-income areas, such as southwest Minneapolis, but has resisted similar spending in Como. “We’re arguing we won’t take that discrimination here!” she said.

Keeping quiet
But this not just about the convenience and community-building powers of an open Talmage Avenue railroad crossing. It’s also about noise. Unless the city comes through with the money to upgrade the crossing, residents will be getting a regular dose of train whistles.

New federal regulations passed last year require engineers to begin sounding their locomotive’s horn when approaching all public-grade crossings. This includes operation in so-called Quiet Zones, which currently includes the Talmage crossing. However, the law also allows for the creation of new Quiet Zones and the continuation of existing zones. The Talmage crossing would be vulnerable to losing its Quiet Zone status, though, if the crossing was not upgraded.

That would mean residents would be treated to a 30-second horn blast from each of the 70 or 80 trains that cross Talmage each day. That would lead to “urban blight,” one resident predicted.

But others, like Barbara White, who lives near the crossing, isn’t bothered as much by the sound of the trains as by the reckless drivers on the street. Cars literally fly over the hill at the crossing, she said, threatening kids who may be playing or bicycling on the other side. She’d like to see the city keep the crossing open, but do something to slow traffic.

It isn’t safe to walk when cars are speeding over the crossing, say Gordon and Lois Skinner, who have lived near the tracks for 51 years. They’d like to see Talmage closed to automobile traffic but remain open for walking and biking. “I tell you, Gordon Skinner said, “we’ll be out there drinking Champagne the day they shut it down.”

They’ll have to keep the bubbly on ice for awhile, though, as Yuzna won’t return to the neighborhood organization with more information until February. But Council Member Cam Gordon, who attended the October meeting, said he was “struck by how much consensus there is” and promised to look into the options.

By then Como Avenue will be re-opened, which will reduce traffic on Talmage and other side streets, and may also reduce opposition to its closing. In any case, celebrations by opponents or advocates are probably a bit premature.

For further information, see the SECIA Web site, and click on “Talmadge Ave SE Railroad crossing,” or call the office at 612/676-1731.

Sidebar: Neighborhood poll supports Talmadge supporters
Como resident Lila Smith, who spearheaded a neighborhood survey about the crossing, wrote, “Talmadge Ave. SE is a quiet residential street, not a highway. The (existing) bells, gates, and flashing signs are sufficient warning.” Smith noted wistfully that Chicago, for instance, obtained a six-county ban on locomotive whistles.

Eighty percent of the 351 respondents to Smith’s survey were in favor of keeping the Talmadge crossing open to all types of use. Eighteen percent favored closing the crossing to vehicles only, but keeping it open to pedestrians and bicyclists. One percent were in favor of closing the crossing completely.

last revised: April 9, 2007