Scott County group opposes track swap

Monday, July 24, 2006

A group of Scott County residents says it has 2,000 signatures on a petition against the proposed increase of train traffic through the county, and that more are on the way.

The group, made up of residents of Sikeston, the Sikeston city government and residents from the county's northern section, have gone door to door and posted the call for signatures on Sikeston's Web site.

The petition urges residents of the county and Southeast Missouri as a whole to "Join us in our fight with Union Pacific. Together we can speak in numbers too large to be ignored."

The group opposes Union Pacific Railroad's proposal to increase train traffic through the county by 10 or more trains per day.

Until now, most of the vocal opposition had come from government officials at the county and municipal level.

But those who helped organize the petition drive say the large number of names shows the issue is important to many county residents, not just to a few elites.

"I think it shows that there's a lot of support from the common citizens, and I think the opposition is growing to it as more people understand exactly what this situation involves and the implications for this area of northern Scott County," said Dan Heeb, who lives between Oran and Chaffee.

Heeb and his wife, Brenda, helped head the petition drive in the county's northern section. Through a grassroots, door-to-door effort they were able to obtain about 700 signatures, they said.

"We'll continue until we feel like we're satisfied with the results, until somebody listens," Brenda Heeb said.

The Heebs said the people they've talked to have expressed a number of concerns about the proposal including train crossing safety and trains blocking residents in cities like Chaffee, Oran and Rockview from emergency services.

Union Pacific is trying to acquire the rights to about 23 miles of track from Rockview to Sikeston from Burlington-Northern Santa Fe in order to increase the efficiency of its operations in the Southeast Missouri area. Union Pacific currently has control of track from Rockview to Dexter. Acquiring the track from Rockview to Sikeston would allow the railroad to run trains going north and south through the area at the same time.

Dan Heeb said he and several of his neighbors have access to their homes only through privately maintained rail crossings that have sometimes been blocked by trains for an hour or more. If an emergency were to happen on their property, he said, help would arrive too late.

He said a meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 9 at St. Ambrose School in Chaffee for residents to discuss their concerns about the swap.

The acquisition is pending an environmental review by the federal Surface Transportation Board, a process that could take months or years. In its filing with the STB, Union Pacific said traffic will increase on the line by 10 to 11 trains per day through cities like Chaffee, Oran and Sikeston. However, Union Pacific officials have said that number could go up significantly if market forces dictate the need for more traffic.

State and federal representatives for the area and the state haven't expressed opposition to the swap outright, but said that safety concerns should be considered.

Scott County Presiding Commissioner Martin Priggel said he hopes the STB will take the petition into consideration and that it will help persuade that body to reject the proposal.

Union Pacific spokesman James Barnes, when asked how the petition drive will affect Union Pacific's approach to working with local governments in easing safety concerns, reiterated the company's commitment to the swap and its commitment to work with local governments to implement safety improvements along the tracks.

335-6611, extension 182

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