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Aldermen split on closing deadly rail crossing

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Feb. 14, 2001
HICKORY  Town officials here voted Tuesday night to place more signs near the deadly Smede Street railroad crossing, but the board of aldermen is split as to whether the crossing should be closed.
The crossing has been the site of three fatal accidents since November 1999. Trinette Wilson and Kirk Buntyn died in late 1999 after their cars collided with Kansas City Southern freight trains. Sidney Wagner died last week after a Kansas City Southern freight train struck his tractor.
Hickory Mayor Wayne Griffith said he talked with Steven Edwards, the Mississippi Department of Transportation's rails engineer. He said Edwards told him the Smede Street crossing is on MDOT's top 100 priority list for upgrades and 75-80 upgrades are usually done each year.
He said he spoke with a Kansas City Southern Railroad official, who also wants the crossing closed.
MDOT officials have promised to completely fund a project to upgrade a nearby crossing including pouring concrete and installing crossbars if Hickory officials will agree to close Smede Street.
Griffith said MDOT officials took a traffic count at the Smede Street crossing about two weeks ago and reported more than 500 cars cross the tracks there daily.
Ward 5 Alderman Bill Brackeen said the trains' speed was a major factor in the three deaths.
Ward 3 Alderman John Brand said he has mixed emotions about closing it, while Ward 1 Alderman Tommy Nichols said he is "totally against" closing it and would "fight until the last to keep it open" because he is concerned about the welfare of people who live on the south side of the track. He said emergency vehicles would lose time detouring to the other crossing to get to those people.
Ward 2 Alderman Marcus Fielder said he is also concerned about people on the south side of the tracks since the difference between life and death sometimes is "only a matter of seconds."
Wagner was White's nephew. White said it's "all speculation" that closing the crossing will stop deaths and that MDOT officials are responsible for either upgrading the crossing or closing it.
Town officials say they mailed two copies of a letter to MDOT requesting help in upgrading the crossing and never received a response. MDOT's central district commissioner, Dick Hall, said MDOT has no record of receiving such a letter.
Griffith said Tuesday he got a letter from MDOT saying they were sorry for not responding sooner but they had lost the letter during Hall's election.
Addie Hamm and James Buntyn, Kirk Buntyn's father, addressed the board. They gave Griffith a copy of a memo sent to MDOT's assistant to the commissioner, Brad White, from State Rails Manager Jim Willis. The March 24, 2000, memo refers to Griffith's letter dated Jan. 5, 2000, and says Griffith was part of a diagnostic survey team at the site. Griffith said he was not given a copy of the survey results or anything else in writing.
The memo says MDOT's team recommended closing the crossing. It also says the team recommended if the Smede Street was not closed that it be outfitted with flashing light signals and automatic gates, in addition to automatic gates at the other crossing on Highway 503, with federal funds. It says the Transportation Commission can order the crossing closed.
Griffith said the board could not act on the information in the memo because it is not addressed to them.
For now, the board opted to erect signs on town property near the crossing but beyond the railroad's property. Aldermen are also considering installing speed bumps and are planning a town meeting to get more public input.
Aldermen say they've talked to many people in their wards who don't want the crossing closed.
Doug Massey, a close friend to Kirk Buntyn, called for immediate action on the part of all involved.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.

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