TUPELO – A proposal to raise the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad through downtown Tupelo could advance despite opposition from key stakeholders.
But officials heading the $2 million railroad-relocation study say they’d rather have public support – and will try to get it – before sending their recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and Mill Village Neighborhood Association criticized the plan Thursday at a two-hour meeting with study officials, including those from the state Department of Transportation, HDR Engineering and Brockington and Associates.
Also present were city planning officials and a representative from the state Department of Archives and History.
They held the meeting at the Tupelo Farmer’s Market and within earshot of ongoing maintenance work at the railroad switching yard.
The study began three years ago to find a way to ease traffic congestion created by the frequent trains cutting through the heart of the city.
At issue was the striking visual impact an elevated railroad would have on downtown Tupelo and especially in some of its historic neighborhoods, like Mill Village.
“No matter how much greenery you put at the base, it looks industrial,” said Sherrie Cochran, a Mill Village resident and city environmentalist, about the proposed solution.
The tracks would rest on an 18-foot bridge extending from southwest Tupelo near Eason Boulevard, intersecting Crosstown, and ending at Joyner Avenue in the northwest. It would carry BNSF trains over the city so they’d no longer intersect vehicular traffic.
Study officials said they understood the concerns and would try to mitigate some of the adverse effects. Actually, that was the original intent of the meeting: to discuss how to lessen the impact of the elevated rails.
But it became clear after two hours that local stakeholders weren’t ready to do that. Instead, they suggested other options to alleviating Tupelo’s increasing train congestion.
Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Michael Jones wanted to know if the railroad could be lowered into an underground trench through town. Vice Chairwoman Karen Keeney wanted to know if at least one intersecting street could be lowered under the tracks to provide emergency vehicles a way around the train.
The trench option initially was studied but quickly rejected for several factors, including its negative impact on streams and wetlands and its need for right-of-way acquisition, said Chad Luedke, vice president of HDR Engineering, the Omaha-based firm leading the study.
Lowering one street under the tracks was not considered, because it wouldn’t fix the overall problem of rail congestion citywide. Currently, some 30 trains use the BNSF tracks daily and cross several busy streets, including Crosstown. Rail traffic is expected to increase to around 45 daily trains in the next two decades.
Study officials said the elevated tracks is the most feasible of 14 options – some of which had involved rerouting the tracks outside town – and would preserve the city’s railroad history.
“Taking the railroad out of town also has an adverse effect,” said Bill Gatlin, architectural historian with the state Department of Archives and History. “The reason you have Mill Village is because of the railroad.”
The raised rails would be built on existing BNSF land and require no right-of-way acquisition. When complete, the old rail bed could be used for a multi-use path or parkway, pending BNSF approval.
The project would cost an estimated $407 million but would save Tupelo more than $800 million by 2030 by eliminating the need to stop traffic for each train. Gas consumption, worker salaries and other factors helped determine that figure, which was published in one of the study’s preliminary papers in 2006.
Study officials said they’ll organize another meeting with stakeholders before writing their draft report and presenting it at public hearing in Tupelo. Officials said they’d like to get local support but don’t necessarily need it. A final report then goes to the Federal Railroad Administration for approval.
Although funding for the study came from federal sources secured through then-U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., it’s unclear who would fund the actual project of lifting the rail.
MDOT engineer Claiborne Barnwell said it’d likely be a cooperative effort but that Tupelo ultimately must decide if it wants the elevated tracks.
“Without the buy-in from the city of Tupelo, without the buy-in from the railroad and without the buy-in from Congress,” he said, “this project won’t happen.”
Emily Le Coz/Daily Journal