Railroad crossing proves barrier
OZARK, Ark. — From the south-facing windows of the Franklin County Courthouse, the residents of Ozark can easily view a large bend in the Arkansas River.
Founded in 1835, Ozark was a jumping-off point for frontiersmen arriving in the unexplored Ozarks by steamboat or other watercraft of the day. The town, now home to about 3,700 residents, was accessible chiefly by river until railway lines reached Ozark in the 1870s.
Nearly a century and a half later, the city, the river and the rail line are key players in a standoff of sorts as Ozark development officials work to revive interest in people seeing and traveling the river.
The city undertook an economic development plan around 1996 that involved building walking trails and boardwalks along the riverfront. But Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks stand between the city’s southern edge and the northern bank of the Arkansas River, and the railroad closed the only street across its land in 2001.
The same year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the riverfront, renewed Ozark’s lease on shoreline near the tracks for a 25-year term. Since then, the city expanded its plans from the original walking trails to include a boardwalk along the river’s north shore, a marina along the southern shore, and a ferry to attract tourist travel back and forth across the river and into town.
Mayor Carol Sneath said the city has no record of Union Pacific ever requesting permission from the City Council to close the railway crossing and the street.
Although a 1962 map drafted by the city identifies Oliver Street as a public street, and the U.S. Department of Transportation identified the crossing as a public crossing in 1991, Union Pacific has maintained that Oliver Street and the crossing are the railroad’s private property.
Raquel Espinoza, director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific Railroad, disputed that any public property is in play.
“We do not have any records of there being an Oliver Street at that location,” Espinoza said. “Our maps are not matching up with their maps.”
Espinoza said Union Pacific once leased some property near the tracks to a propane company, but the company eventually vacated the property. The access point — presumably, what the city refers to as Oliver Street — was removed, she said.
“But that was not public property,” Espinoza said. “It’s not a public crossing.”
Sandy Key, director of Main Street Ozark, has led the effort to develop the riverfront since the plan’s inception and has dealt directly with representatives from Union Pacific and the city. Key said city officials originally sought to solve the crossing issue by relocating it either to the east or west of the original crossing.
“We thought they were going to give us another crossing in a different location that they deemed safer,” Key said. “In order to keep from ‘getting into it’ with the railroad, we were willing to work with them to move the crossing to a location they preferred. But different things happened, and they just kept rejecting it.”
Espinoza said Union Pacific’s chief concern with regard to riverfront development is safety. Trains traveling through the area typically move at 60 mph, and the line connects key markets to major rail yards in Little Rock and Memphis, she said.
Espinoza said Union Pacific is unwilling to consider installing a street-level crossing.
“We’re willing to help the city explore ways to build a pedestrian overpass that will make the area safer,” Espinoza said.
Matt Mihalevich, trails coordinator for the city of Fayetteville, has studied such pedestrian overpasses where his city’s trails bisect rail crossings. Mihalevich estimated that an overhead pedestrian crossing for a rail line, including ramps to make the crossing compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, would cost about $750,000.
That amount is more than one-third of Ozark’s annual budget, which is about $1.96 million this year.
Espinoza said Union Pacific would not pay for such an overpass.
In 2007, Key commissioned a study on the economic feasibility of developing a marina along the river at Ozark. The study, completed by researchers at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, projected that the development would attract 187 jobs to the area and would generate about $12.7 million in annual revenue, based on an initial investment of $10 million in construction.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re blocking economic development to the city of Ozark,” Key said, referring to Union Pacific Railroad.
In a Nov. 30 letter, Sneath asked Patrick Halstead, Union Pacific’s director of industry and public projects, based in Omaha, Neb., to reconsider the railroad’s position on the crossing and invited Halstead or a representative to meet with the Ozark City Council on the matter.
Sneath attached 18 items of documentation to support the city’s arguments regarding the origin of Oliver Street and access to the shoreline, including official maps, minutes of city meetings dating to 1940, signed statements from Ozark residents who attest to regularly using the crossing before it was closed and other correspondence.
Sneath and Key said they haven’t heard from Union Pacific regarding the invitation.
The city is not planning to take legal action against the railroad, primarily because it would be costly, Sneath said.
“Naturally, we don’t want to go to court. We don’t want that to be our avenue,” Sneath said. “They’ve got more money than we do. Lots.”
According to Union Pacific’s 2012 Security and Exchange Commission filing, the company generated $18.5 billion in freight revenue in 2011.
Espinoza said Union Pacific officials are trying to coordinate with Ozark representatives to choose a date to meet.
“We don’t have a date yet, but we anticipate being able to meet with her and this group in the near future,” Espinoza said.
Originally published Jan. 31, 2013, in the Northwest Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette