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West Allis trail proposal gets double-crossed

Railroad officials deem two crossings as unsafe for pathway

Aug. 21, 2012

West Allis - West Allis' plans to build a crosstown pathway for bicyclists and pedestrians as part of a regional trail system has stumbled at the foot of two railroad crossings.

The proposed off-road trail - in a former interurban train route from approximately 92nd Street west to 124th Street - would enable trail users to get to Lake Michigan via the Hank Aaron State Trail to the east and to near Madison via the New Berlin Recreation Trail and Glacial Drumlin State Trail to the west, with further connections to the Mississippi River.

It would also provide an off-road connection to the on-road, off-road Oak Leaf Trail through the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

However, the city needs permission for the planned pathway to cross the Union Pacific railroad tracks at two places: east of Highway 100 and a bit north of Rogers Street.

The Office of the Commissioner of Railroads held a hearing on the city's request, but hearing examiner Douglas Wood has notified the city that he would recommend denying permission. He said the crossings would not be safe.

Questionable decision

For one West Allis city official, that decision simply doesn't make sense.

"I was shocked," said Alderman Marty Weigel, a strong proponent of the pathway. "I strongly disagree."

Thirty or 40 places along the heavily used Oak Leaf trail in Milwaukee County are more challenging than the two local crossings would be, Weigel said. In fact, the proposed crossings have been used on an informal basis for many years.

"People use it on a daily basis and have been for decades," he said.

Joggers, dog walkers, even bicyclists travel the corridor, now owned by We Energies, and kids cut through it on their way to school and parks, Weigel said.

"Talk to anybody who lives on that side of town - everybody knows the spot," he said.

Weigel believes the sightlines for spotting trains are already good, and the city would make them better.

"All we're asking for is permission," he said.

But Weigel realizes it is an uphill battle for the city. A denial from the commissioner would leave the city with three expensive and unlikely alternatives: building a bridge over the tracks, tunneling under the tracks or appealing the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads' decision in circuit court.

Even if the railroad commissioner signaled the city's plans to proceed, the railroad itself would challenge the decision in court, Weigel predicted.

Safer approach

An official with Union Pacific said the issue comes down to safety.

"From a safety standpoint, we would not do (allow crossings)," Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.

Davis said he didn't want to guess how the railroad would fight the city on the issue, or whether a court battle would be involved.

The railroad strongly opposed the crossings for three reasons: trains travel those tracks at 30 mph, it is a double track, and both crossings would have limited visibility because of the track curve.

The hearing examiner said that railroads typically oppose any new crossings. But whether they take a decision to court depends on how strongly they feel, Wood said.

"This time they were vigorous," he said.

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