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9 Investigates: State Transportation Department To Make Safer Railroad Crossings

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Intersections, especially those involving railroad tracks, can be dangerous, if not deadly. Intersections, especially those involving railroad tracks, can be dangerous, if not deadly.
OKLAHOMA CITY -

Intersections, especially those involving railroad tracks, can be dangerous, if not deadly.

That's why the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is undertaking what may be an unprecedented effort to make hundreds of railroad crossings across the state safer.

There were 12 deaths at Oklahoma railroad crossings last year and 21 injuries.

"The convergence of cars and trains never works well," said Mike Patterson, Oklahoma Department of Transportation director.

Patterson is determined to prevent such convergence, but knows it's a major challenge.

"We know that there's additional train traffic all across this state," Patterson said.

Rail experts point to an increasing use of trains to transport freight, and even a slight uptick in passenger service. Current demand supports the existence and operation of 24 train lines in Oklahoma, on more than 3,700 miles of track.

With that much rail, however, there is an almost equal number of railroad crossings, and the majority of those have the bare minimum, in terms of safety features.

"Oklahoma has over 3,700 public, at-grade crossings, and only about a fourth of those have some kind of signalization -- gates or lights, or both," said Sherry Soliz, executive director of Operation Lifesaver.

The rest of them are passive crossings, marked only with the standard railroad crossing sign, the crossbuck, Soliz said.

"That crossbuck sign means yield, because trains have the right of way 100 percent of the time," Soliz said.

But Soliz and other rail safety experts say, too often, people don't yield, which helps explain why someone is hit by a train every three hours in this country. Crossbucks aren't enough.

"The thing about public crossings is [that] motorists, when we're driving, are looking for lights to tell us when to stop and go," Soliz said.

ODOT officials are excited because a large number of crossings will soon have those lights, and possibly gate arms, as well.

"Ultimately, we want to do more than 300," Patterson said.

Using $75 million earned last year from the sale of the Sooner Sub rail line connecting Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and $25 million in federal funds, ODOT is planning to upgrade about ten crossings a month for the next three years.

Patterson said the railroads are thrilled, and other states are envious. 

"It's become evident to me that this is an unprecedented effort by any DOT," Patterson said.

ODOT first announced its intention to use these funds (about $100 million in total) to upgrade rail crossings more than a year ago.

Since then, the agency has been talking with rail operators, with local officials, and doing site visits in an effort to whittle down the number of candidate locations.

Train traffic, vehicle traffic, and incident history were all factors in evaluating individual locations.

The result is a list of 300 locations across the state, but including 42 crossings in Oklahoma County, 32 in Tulsa County, and numerous crossings along the OKC-Tulsa corridor. The first improvements should begin later this fall.

"At our next Commission meeting, our goal is to bring ten projects for their approval," Patterson said.

Those first ten are spread across the state, from Luther to Collinsville, Tipton to Enid.

"This is going to be good for everybody concerned," Soliz said. "It's going to be good for the railroads, it's going to be good for the motorists."

Patterson agrees and said his goal is zero fatalities.

"Some might suggest that's unattainable," Patterson said.

But any progress, he says, will save lives.

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