EDITORIAL: Rail realism

By NEMS Daily Journal

The one good thing about trains holding up the flow of traffic in Tupelo is that they provide a convenient excuse for being late.
Other than that one consolation, confronting long trains – sometimes multiple times a day – is an irritant for motorists in the city. No one disputes that.
There’s also an economic cost in energy consumption and lost productivity. According to findings of a study that recently received preliminary approval from the Federal Railroad Administration, those costs would amount to $800 million by 2030.
The fact that two dozen trains move through or near downtown Tupelo does signify Tupelo’s connection to the broader economy, so there are some economic benefits. But the frustration for people trying to get through some of the city’s busiest intersections is undeniable.
So is this: We’ll have to live with the frustration for a long time to come.
Some $2.2 million was spent on the study that began nearly six years ago, secured by Sen. Roger Wicker through federal sources when he was in the U.S. House. The Mississippi Department of Transportation has coordinated the study.
The study recommends a “rail viaduct,” which would elevate the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks 23 feet above street level. That option was recommended over rerouting the tracks outside the city.
The cost of raising the tracks is estimated at $407 million, a figure which has probably gone up significantly since it was first floated a couple of years ago.
Let’s be realistic. Where in this day of necessary federal frugality will that kind of money come from, especially with Wicker and current 1st District Rep. Alan Nunnelee among those who are now saying that fiscal austerity begins at home? As Mayor Jack Reed Jr. put it, “Things have certainly changed in the federal government’s budgeting process since this started.”
A more achievable goal may be to upgrade crossings so that trains can go faster through the city and shorten the traffic delays. With proper crossing protections, there’s no higher safety risk to trains speeding up a bit.
When you get right down to it, the train delays are an irritant Tupelo can live with. In a perfect world there would be a half-billion dollars or so available to relocate or raise the tracks, but that’s not today’s environment – nor was that kind of money ever a sure thing, even in much less austere fiscal times.
Tupelo has bigger issues to deal with than train-caused inconvenience. It’s probably time to put the whole notion of a big train tracks project, along with the study, on the shelf for the foreseeable future.