Train switch relocation slowly progressing
by Emily McLain
SYLACAUGA – The city is one step closer to alleviating traffic headaches caused by the downtown railroad interchange through the assistance of a nearly $1.6 million federal grant.

After some delay, the Federal Railroad Administration grant awarded last spring is now being processed to relocate the problematic interchange about two miles west. The project will be managed by Eastern Alabama Railway, formerly a division of RailAmerica.

“We’re hoping the entire project will be complete in less than a year,” said Donna Fathke, planner with the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, which is administering the grant on behalf of the city. “The bid process is moving quickly. Bids are due in early August, and they are hoping to award the jobs well before the end of the year.”

The scope of work involves moving the interchange, which currently crosses at four of the city’s primary North-South thoroughfares including Broadway Avenue, toward U.S. 280 and closer to local industries that require access. Two interchanges will be constructed at that location allowing train cars to switch between local and long-distance callers, Fathke said.

The railway is also replacing a 2.3-mile section of 80-pound railing from Main Avenue to the new interchanges with improved 115-pound railing and upgrading the active warning devices at the Norton Street crossing, along with other improvements.

The grant, applied for in October 2011, was delayed in large part because RailAmerica was bought out by Genesee and Wyoming Inc., leading to some personnel shifts and other changes, Fathke said. A call to Eastern Alabama Railway was not returned Thursday.

The next steps to keep the project moving forward involve action from the city. To comply with federal and state law, Mayor Doug Murphree said the city must incorporate additional language into its previously passed resolutions regarding the grant and also hold a public meeting concerning the transfer of public funds to a private company.

“The grant was available for railroads to do some capital improvements, but there had to be a municipality involved to get the money, so Eastern Alabama contacted us to partner with them on this,” he said. “It is good for the railroad, but it will help the city, too, with some traffic issues, and it will help the Industrial Park.”

The City Council will hold the public meeting and likely readopt resolutions concerning the project at its next regular meeting on Aug. 7, Murphree said. EARPDC will oversee the transfer of funds from the city to Eastern Alabama Railway, or Genesee and Wyoming.

“As with most federal grants, it is done through a reimbursement program,” Fathke said. “Genesee and Wyoming is implementing the project themselves and they will incur the costs and pass the bills onto the city, and the city will approve them and pass them to me, and I will put it through the federal reimbursement system.”

In addition to the grant money, Eastern Alabama Railway will provide a roughly $758,000 match to meet the estimated $2.3 million total cost of the project. The city’s grant was awarded as part of a $16.9 million FRA Rail Line Relocation and Improvement competitive program that benefited only 12 cities and states nationwide.

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© 2013