Editor’s Note: This story was intended to be in the July 20 CNA, but did not. Union County Engineer Keith Wieland said July 20 he was not correct with the location of the bridge during the July 19 meeting as discussions with BNSF were about a bridge on Redwood Avenue, not in Thayer. Further discussions with BNSF have since included Thayer. Thayer Mayor Jennifer Mitchell informed Thayer Council Wednesday about the July 19 meeting with Union County Board of Supervisors.
Union County, city of Thayer and BNSF Railway officials are expected to meet and determine the future of two railroad crossings in the town of Thayer.
During the Union County Board of Supervisors meeting July 19, county engineer Keith Wieland informed supervisors of BNSF’s proposal to fund construction of an overpass provided either Thayer or the county be responsible for maintenance afterward.
Ed Engle, who works with railroads through the Iowa Department of Transportation, explained Thayer has two streets with railroad crossings; Third Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue is a wooden overpass and owned by BNSF. Iowa DOT has no authority over the railroads.
“They are wanting to get rid of that bridge and possibly replace it with a bridge they would pay for as long as the county or city and county take over ownership and responsibility for the bridge,” he said. Third Avenue is a Farm to Market road, which the county is responsible.
Engle said it is rare for a railroad to pay for bridge construction and estimated a $2 million project.
“If it can be done in a way it benefits the county and town, my recommendation is to go for it. It’s not something the county would want to or be able to pay for themselves, especially for a town this size,” he said.
Engle suggested the overpass on Third Avenue because it is considered a main access to the town. There has been no indication where the new bridge will be located. Engle speculated BNSF will want to close one of the crossings to eliminate the number of crossings they have.
“One of the reasons for having a bridge for a small community in Iowa is you need to have some sort of separate grade access to the town for fire emergencies. That is one of the main reasons the railroad will offer to partly fund or fund a bridge if they can get rid of another crossing,” he said. “They’ll say ‘You’ll still have the fire emergency access. It will be at one location and we’d like to close the other location.”
Thayer Mayor Jennifer Mitchell, who was in attendance, said that was the first time Thayer has learned of the proposal. Wieland said he spoke with Engle last week and invited Mitchell to the July 19 meeting.
“When you come into Thayer you go up a hill,” Mitchell said about approaching the Third Avenue railroad crossing northbound. “I have a lot questions how that is going to work and what that’s going to look like.”
Mitchell said building an overpass on Third Avenue would interfere with a business and properties near the crossing.
“There are lot of people in the city of Thayer I’d be talking to,” Mitchell said. Wieland said property owners’ approval will be needed before further planning.
“It is an option and we do need to explore it,” Wieland said about the proposal.
Mitchell strives for the residents to still have safe ways to cross the tracks.
“That railroad bridge has been since I have been there,” she said about the existing overpass calling it an eventual safety issue. “We need to explore what is going to be safe and still have access.”
She said, two years ago a train was blocking Third Avenue crossing and trucks can’t drive over the Fifth Avenue overpass because of weight limits. A medical emergency in town occurred the same time and responders had a significant delay because of the crossings. Mitchell said the person in need died but it can’t be determined if it was because of the delay of the arrival of emergency services or the actual medical condition.
“There are still lots of questions about that. I want to be sure emergency services can get where they need to go. The railroad bridge that is currently there doesn’t meet that need,” she said.
Wieland is interested in continuing discussing the proposal with the railroad.
Engle expects the railroad to want an expanded right-of-way at the Third Avenue crossing because the location of a rail spur. Wieland said the DOT already has a design for the bridge.
Supervisor Ron Riley asked if Thayer or the county would then be responsible for the bridge. Wieland said that is the discussion that needs to happen.
“This has to be pretty important for them to pay for it,” Engle said about BNSF. Knowing the rail line is also used by Amtrak, passenger service is under more federal oversight and safety issues.
Mitchell said the city of Thayer has a “very, very small” budget. Wieland said it’s possible the county could assist with funding for the overpass.
“We didn’t want to take on that extra expense because we are trying eliminate bridges,” Wieland said, hoping culverts can replace bridges.
Mitchell said the railroad asked Thayer officials about 15 years ago to purchase the Fifth Avenue overpass but Thayer did not agree as they still wanted an alternative to prevent traffic delays because of trains.
Mitchell said because of the hill on Third Avenue, and after a train has passed, it is difficult for northbound traffic to see southbound traffic potentially causing a hazard. Because of that, she added Thayer people are accustom to that setting and take precautions at the crossing.
“Building a bridge at Third Avenue is a win-win,” she said.