Safety concerns: Railroad ticketing angers peds
Signs haven't stopped them. Scores of trespassing tickets haven't stopped them. Heck, even a stretch of yellow police tape stretched last week along the tracks at 15th Street after a boxcar derailment hasn't stopped them. Nope. When it comes to crossing the railroad tracks that traverse the Corner and run alongside 15th Street, UVA students are a little like the Colorado River as it forged the Grand Canyon millions of years ago: relentless.
In a mere 10 minutes on Monday morning just before 10am, a Hook reporter counted at least three dozen backpack-toting students pouring over the tracks. And a contractor working on the former Satellite Ballroom building says the flow is strong all day long.
"More than 1,000 people cross this stretch of tracks every day," estimates Steve Johnson, owner of Albemarle Enterprises. From his perch in a backhoe in the Corner Parking Lot, he says he's been surprised at the students' audacity– particularly in tearing down the police tape.
"It's like they say, 'It doesn't apply to me," says Johnson.
In August, Charlottesville police began targeting trespassers on that stretch of tracks and citing safety as the reason for the crackdown. Judging from the Charlottesville District Court docket on Thursday, August 28, police were serious about the effort.
A whopping 58 offenders made the court list that day for that particular transgression, a Class 4 misdemeanor punishable by up to a $250 fine.
"If someone crosses," Johnson says, "they should arrest them." In addition, he believes UVA should be cracking down on students who trespass on tracks. UVA, he says, "should have some kind of quick class about train track safety," he says. Students who continue to trespass on tracks, he says, should "have a possibility of being kicked out of school."
But some of those on the receiving end of the tickets– and some Corner business people who want to encourage pedestrian accessibility in a town chopped into quadrants by two different railroads– disagree.
“If they want to keep us safe, why don’t they put in a pedestrian crossing?” wonders Katie Hartwell, a Corner restaurant staffer. On August 12, Hartwell was ticketed as she took the popular shortcut across the tracks by 15th Street to run an afternoon errand. She says she sees hundreds of people take the shortcut each day, a fact evidenced by a worn footpath leading up the bank toward the tracks from 15th Street.
Another recipient of an August trespassing ticket says police are wasting resources.
“We’re paying that officer,” says an outraged Marya Dunlap-Brown, ticketed on August 13 as she left work at UVA and headed home. Dunlap-Brown says as Officer Stuart Bruce was writing her ticket, his radio crackled with a report of a suspected drug deal happening.
“Get a criminal,” says Dunlap-Brown. “Catch someone selling drugs.”
Of the 58 alleged offenders slated for the August 28 District Court docket, 20 paid a $106 fee. Twenty-eight other offenders chose to serve 20 hours of community service to be performed within 60 days, an option Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Claude Worrell says will be offered to others ticketed for track trespassing in the future. Dunlap-Brown and Hartwell, both working mothers, paid $106 in fines.
“I can’t do 20 hours of community service,” says Hartwell. Dunlap-Brown points out that the 20 hours to be free of a $106 fine made her answer clear.
“That’s less than minimum wage,” she says.
Officer Bruce is not permitted to comment on the ticketing, according to Charlottesville Police Captain Allen Kirby, who explains that train track enforcement “falls under the umbrella of safety.” And Charlottesville Police Lt. Mike Farruggio says he’s seen first-hand the horror that can occur from railroad trespassing. He recalls a UVA coed whose foot was severed on that stretch of tracks in the early 1990s, and another man who had both feet severed. At least two others have been killed on Charlottesville train tracks in the past decade.
Nationwide, track trespassing deaths are more common than some might imagine. According to the Northern Virginia-based train safety nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, 486 pedestrians were accidentally killed as they trespassed on train tracks in 2007.
Among other dangers, “You can get stuck in the ties,” says Operation Lifesaver spokesperson Marmie Edwards. “It’s surprising how quickly a train can come upon you.” Also, she says, many times people don’t realize that a train is so wide and they fail to get completely clear as the train crosses.
At least one Corner business owner says he doesn’t see a need for a pedestrian crossing.
“Just don’t be in such a hurry,” suggests Jim Roland, owner of St. Maarten’s restaurant. “All you have to do is walk one block and around. Get a 60 second-head start on life. There could be a train coming.” (In fact, crossing the tracks is at least a three-block-saving shortcut.)
But pedestrian activist Kevin Cox, citing the maximum allowed speed of 10mph along that stretch, doesn’t believe there’s much public risk from the trains.
“Generally it’s much safer to cross the railroad tracks than it is to cross the street in Charlottesville,” says Cox, recalling two handicapped pedestrians who were struck by cars in city crosswalks in the past two years– including one hit by an Albemarle police cruiser.
“Life is a risk,” says Dunlap-Brown. “If someone’s going to go that way, that’s between them and their insurance companies.”
She and Cox point out one glaring inconsistency in the idea that crossing tracks is tantamount to a death wish: crossing is perfectly legal wherever streets cross the tracks.
The issue of train track safety on the Corner– and pedestrian accessibility– has been on the minds of Corner merchants for several years. In fact, in 2005, a UVA-organized “Corner Workshop” brought city planners, University architects, Corner business owners, UVA staff, and students together to address problems facing the shopping and dining district. One of five “key issues” identified by the workshop attendees: “limited access due to the railroad and safety concerns related to illegal crossings.”
The construction of hundreds of new students housing units along 15th Street would make the pedestrian issue even more pressing. A suggested solution: a gated pedestrian crossing between 15th Street and the Corner Parking Lot.
Mark Lorenzoni, owner of Ragged Mountain Running Shop, says he hopes the city will take steps to increase pedestrian accessibility across the tracks.
"The suggestion we're going to make to the police is that we have a pedestrian crossing," he says. "It would cost some money, but the time is right. There are so many more students living in that area."
According to City Engineer Tony Edwards, the city is now considering options for the stretch of tracks between 15th Street and the parking lot, including a fence or some type of crossing. Still, any decision won’t happen soon. “Any discussions about this are preliminary,” says Edwards.
As for who would pay for a crossing and/or fence, that, too, is up in the air. Buckingham Branch leases the tracks from CSX, and according to BB spokesperson Gale Wilson, his company would welcome a pedestrian crossing if it were at either CSX’s or the city’s expense. Representatives for CSX did not return the Hook’s repeated calls.
Hartwell suggests taking all money collected from train track trespassers and putting it toward a pedestrian crossing– or several crossings. But Dunlap-Brown says she doesn’t want to see the city spend money to put in a flashing light or fence, no matter what the source of revenue.
“I don’t think a nickel should be spent,” she says. “If it’s private property, the police shouldn’t be monitoring it. And if the railroad is worried about safety, she says, “the railroad should put their own officer there.”
–last updated 12:21pm, Tuesday, September 16