BY LENA MITCHELL
TUPELO – In a 21st century world, the U.S. economy continues to rely on – and thrive on – 19th century rail freight transportation.
Like many other cities, Tupelo sprang up and prospered thanks to the railroad. Today, however, those same tracks crisscrossing the downtown business district have come to represent a hindrance to aspects of economic growth and development.
“We can't afford to have all traffic blocked up six to eight hours a day in the future,” said Mayor Larry Otis.
An on-again, off-again topic – relocating the railroad – is on again. Money has been earmarked in Congress for a relocation study, and Otis is talking with the railroads about other long-term solutions.
But in the short term, trains are getting longer and their frequency is increasing on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line.
“Businesses don't like the long stacks of waiting cars in front of their businesses on Gloster, and it poses some safety issues,” said Community Development Foundation president David Rumbarger.
“From Burlington Northern's perspective, as the traffic continues to increse, as it is predicted to do, issues of rail transportation and efficiency come up. When trains slow down for a crossing, or reduce speed through Tupelo, it costs them hours in transportation of goods.”
That's not particularly good news for the thousands of motorists who each day stop for trains rolling through the city or chugging back and forth through the switching yards.
“My husband, Rev. Tim Fortner, and I have lived in Tupelo for 18 years, so we have spent much time at Crosstown just as everyone else, waiting for trains to go through,” said Anna Fortner.
It was a trip to the hospital with her husband “rolling around in pain in the back of a van” that caused Fortner the greatest frustration.
“We were stuck there for at least 5 to 7 minutes waiting for the train to slowly make its way through,” she said. “It seemed like three years.”
The two rail lines that cut through the city – Burlington Northern and Kansas City Southern Railroad – affect more than 30 at-grade crossings.
BNSF has 26 trains per day, expected to increase to 40 per day in five years. The average train length is expected to increase from 114 to 120 cars. KCS operates only three to six trains a day, and they are usually much shorter in length.
Burlington Northern tracks cross the intersection of Tupelo's two main streets, impeding some 40,000 motorists who on any given day travel east and west on West Main Street and north and south on Gloster Street.
In addition to simply waiting for trains to pass, Tupelo motorists face another delay-causing situation: Switching yards for both train lines lie in downtown sites that cross some of the city's busiest streets. Freight car switches between BNSF and KCS rail lines cause trains to halt traffic for even longer than the usual period.
All about timing
Commuters who must cross the tracks daily for work would be wise to learn the train schedule and time their movements accordingly. But there's a hitch: The trains don't operate on a set schedule.
BNSF trains move when all the cars on the manifest have been attached at the Memphis depot, said an employee who asked not to be named.
Despite the best plan, some motorists simply cannot meet a time schedule when they need to cross the train tracks.
Lisa Hutcheson knows all too well about waiting for trains in Tupelo.
“When I was pregnant with my youngest son in March 2003, I awoke one night in premature labor,” she said. “We live right off McCullough Boulevard, so my husband drove through town to get to the Women's Center. Wouldn't you know it, a train was coming through. We sat forever waiting for it to end.”
The first trip to the hospital was a false alarm.
“When I finally went into labor one month later, my husband Matt decided to go down (Highway) 45 and get off on Eason Boulevard to get to the Women's Center and hopefully avoid the train.
“Unfortunately, the train was waiting for us when we got off on Eason. It stopped, then pulled up, then went back. Ten minutes went by… I was literally screaming at the top of my lungs because my contractions were so bad. When the train cleared and we got across, I was only at the Women's Center 35 to 40 minutes before the baby was delivered.”
Tackling the problem
The train problem isn't a new one. The city's first serious effort to alleviate the situation goes back to the late 1970s, when voters rejected a referendum that would have financed an overpass on Front Street.
In 1989, city officials applied for a state grant to move the Burlington Northern switching yard from downtown. The application was rejected.
A 1992 request to federal lawmakers to request a $4.6 million appropriation in the federal budget to relocate the switching yard also failed.
Two years ago, the state Department of Transportation commissioned a study to determine the impact of train lines through Tupelo's business center.
Otis and others had urged the study, believing that moving the rail line out of Tupelo would increase safety and efficiency for both city residents and the railroads.
As a lifelong resident of Tupelo and executive director of Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, Jim High has been attuned to the discussions of railroad fixes for Tupelo.
“There are two ways that the trains cause a problem,” High said. “One is that we happen to be on a very active line. The other is the freight switches at Crosstown.”
High has suggestions for two simple adjustments that could ease the problems significantly and immediately.
One is for trains through Tupelo to increase their speed. Right now, trains travel 20-25 mph through the city, but at higher speeds through other towns like New Albany and Nettleton.
“If the train goes twice as fast, you sit there half as long,” High said.
The other suggestion from High is to reverse the direction from which freight car switching occurs. Instead of having switching trains come from the west, where they stand and back up at Crosstown, have the switching trains come from the east. Intersections would still be blocked, but they would be less busy ones.
The four options
As a result of the most recent study, engineering consultant Wilbur Smith Associates of Columbia, S.C., presented Tupelo four rail relocation route options going southwest around the city, costing between $77 million and $123 million to implement.
The least expensive option would create an inner loop route starting at Coley Road to the west, going south and along the west bank of Coonewah Creek and then east parallel to the new route for Mississippi Highway 6 north of Green Tee Road, and back to the existing BNSF line.
The outer loop plan, costing about $123 million, would begin several miles northwest of Tupelo in Sherman and require all new railroad bed in a southeasterly line around Tupelo, Verona and Shannon, to relink with BNSF existing rails in Nettleton to the southeast.
BNSF was involved with a train track rerouting project in Amarillo, Texas, just completed in September.
“What this rerouting was able to do was move some of the congestion from the downtown area (of Amarillo) and allow auto traffic to move at key times in the downtown area,” Faust said.
“Burlington Northern has come to the table and is fully participating with us,” Otis said. “They're partnering with us and I think that will go a long way in finding funding for it.”
Burlington Northern has given the nod, and plans to commit financial support, to the plan commissioned by the state Department of Transportation.
“BNSF is very supportive and active with the leadership from the city of Tupelo to work cooperatively on this study,” said railroad spokesman Joe Faust. “We support the study and the move if that would alleviate some of the problems.”
Also helping in the quest to fund the rerouting are the area's congressmen.
U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker announced recently that $1.5 million in planning funds have been included in this year's transportation appropriation. A final vote on the bill is expected in January.
The city also continues to work with the Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University, Otis said, in hopes of the Appalachian Regional Commission as a potential funding source.
“Mayor Otis and I have talked about it, and I commend him on his vision and tenacity,” said Dr. Mabel Murphree, state ARC director. Funding, she said, would depend on what Gov.-elect Haley Barbour wants to do.
“Based on what he has said about economic development and understanding how important transportation is,” she said, “I feel sure if we took a program to him and a valid case for how important it is, he would support it.”