TOWN URGED TO CLOSE CROSSING WHERE 4 TEENS DIED

HUMPHREY, Ark. -- Residents must soon decide whether they want to close one of two railroad crossings to secure money to build a new crossing at an intersection where four teen-agers died last year in an accident, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

On March 4, 2000, a train struck a pickup carrying the teens as they returned to school. Killed were Ashley Caviness, 14, Danielle White, 13, Brady Frizzell, 14, and Cliff Morgan, 16.

"We are never going to be able to get it out of our minds," Humphrey Mayor James Sanders said Thursday. "At night when I hear a train [whistle], I think about it."

Sanders said a City Council meeting is set Feb. 5 for people to vote on closing the crossing where the youths died.

For the past several years, Union Pacific Railroad officials have encouraged residents to close the Mulberry Street crossing, one of two that serves the small farming community of about 800 people north of Pine Bluff on the Jefferson-Arkansas county line. The second, the Division crossing, is 340 feet away from the Mulberry crossing.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said Thursday that railroad officials are still talking to state and local officials about closing one of the crossings but can't do anything until residents make a decision.

Davis said the railroad can offer financial incentives to build the new crossing, which would feature gates and flashing lights.

In the interest of public safety, about six years ago the Federal Railroad Administration began encouraging communities to reduce the number of crossings to cut back on collisions, Davis said.

"If you remove the number of at-grade crossings, you reduce the possibility of accidents," Davis said. "With the two crossings so close together, it's a prime candidate for closing."

Typically, the railroad will provide up to 20 percent of the cost to upgrade crossings. In this case, a new crossing would cost an estimated $150,000.

One option being proposed by residents is to establish a "locked gate," which would be accessible to emergency vehicles at the Mulberry Street crossing. "From a safety standpoint, obviously the fewer places you have to control in terms of crossings, the more you enhance safety," Randy Ort, a spokesman for the state Highway and Transportation Department, said Thursday.

Ort said highway officials hope to fund the proposed new Humphrey crossing from an estimated $1.5 million in federal money the department receives annually for railroad crossings and upgrades. Ort said money is tight, with an estimated 2,200 crossings in the state, of which only 800 have "active warning devices" -- gates or flashing lights.

State officials hope to fund their share of the crossing entirely with federal money, Ort said.

Sanders said it's a question of accepting inconvenience in the interest of public safety. For the locked gate option to work, emergency services agencies will have to be given keys.

"I haven't been able to make the railroad people believe that at times trains block Division Street and leave Mulberry free, and at times they will block both of them," Sanders said.

Sanders, mayor for the past 21 years, said when the crossings are blocked, residents at the south end of town must drive five miles over country roads to reach the other side of town, exiting at Arkansas 152 and U.S. 79.

The six-member City Council met Tuesday to discuss the crossing, but only about 30 people showed up. Sanders hopes for a much bigger turnout at the Feb. 5 meeting.

Many residents drove to Pine Bluff on Tuesday to watch their senior boys basketball team, unbeaten in 23 games, play at Dollarway High School, Sanders explained.

"I don't have any hard feelings for the Highway Department or the railroad," Sanders said. "It's just a matter of the city doing what it needs to do."

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January 12, 2001


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2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers