LULA — A meeting held Monday opened dialog about a problem facing several communities in Northeast Georgia: railroad vehicle crossings blocked for up to 90 minutes, restricting access to some areas.
“This area has had experience with a number of times that the railroad crossings are blocked and that’s affected not only the city of Lula in Hall County, but also in Banks County,” said Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin. “We’re trying to work to some resolution so we can eliminate that.”
On Monday, two Banks County commissioners and some staff members, Sen. John Wilkinson, Norfolk Southern representatives and himself sat down to discuss possible remedies for the persistent problem.
“This issue that they’ve had is near and dear to our heart — we have the same issue, where [trains] block the railroad crossing,” Bergin told the Lula City Council during Monday night’s work session. “They had dates and times when they had blocked the railroad crossings in the mornings, and the length of time was up to an hour and a half. This doesn’t come as a surprise to us, because we have railroad crossings as well.”
Bergin said Alto is experiencing a similar problem, so to keep crossings in Lula from backing up, trains stop farther up toward Barefoot Road and Moccasin Gap Road, affecting Banks County.
“When they’re pulling these trains off on side tracks and blocking, that’s because they run north/south and only have one track. It would be nice if they had two lines, or even a better line that they could take side tracks on,” Bergin said.
Bergin said currently more than two dozen trains pass over the tracks in the city each day, meaning more trains are stopped to allow others to pass.
“I guess this is what happens when you have a good economy,” Bergin said. “Train traffic is increased significantly. I think we’re up to 28 trains a day to come through on these tracks, and we’re not the only community that has that. So today we had a chance to sit down with Banks County and their elected officials and staff, as well as Norfolk Southern and also some of our state representatives to help us all sit down and collectively realize this is an issue we need to work toward what resolutions might be applicable and how that might work.”
Banks County officials have said they want to look at opening up some land where there currently is only one way in and one way out of a community, such as Barefoot Road — which can be blocked by a train for an extended time — and possibly connect those areas to existing Lula streets and roadways.
Bergin said there is willingness from all involved parties to explore what’s available to create a better situation for everyone.
“I’m very encouraged with Norfolk Southern’s response,” Bergin said. “Now we’re going to go back to DOT and get them involved in the pipeline. It’s not an easy fix, not going to happen overnight. We heard some things that are encouraging. We’ll keep the public informed as things mature, but not an immediate answer to our problems.”
While train traffic will not stop along the busy rail corridor, “We can probably limit the amount of blockages that we’re having on crossings,” Bergin said.
Outside Northeast Georgia, some planned projects will help reduce some of the larger freight traffic from the corridor through Atlanta, Gainesville and Lula.
“Hopefully within the next year, Norfolk Southern is making two bridge improvements that’s going to allow them to take double-decker trains straight from Savannah, from the port, all the way up through Augusta up to Charlotte as a direct line, whereas now we’re getting all that traffic — which is a challenge in itself. The other interesting point is the amount of traffic we’re getting right now is only about 13 percent of the traffic that’s coming out of Savannah and they want to increase that to 30 percent, so we need to look at long-term solutions. We can fix and put and Band-Aid on it today, but that’s not going to be the answer. The answer is going to be in finding something that’s going to remedy the situation once and for all, and that’s the goal.”