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Caught in red tape, train horns keep blowing

By KATHLEEN POINTER
The Kansas City Star

Dozens of trains pass over the tracks near 71st and Martindale in Shawnee every day, each blowing its horn as it nears and passes over a public crossing, as federal law requires.

But Michael Konon says it’s not really a crossing anymore, and he has been trying to get the railroad and city to work together to end the horn blasts.

The public access gate has been locked since 2006 and there are impassable concrete blocks bordering the tracks. Even without the blocks, it would still be difficult for a car to make it across; there is no platform.

For a few years, the track was even marked as closed in the Federal Railroad Administration database because a BNSF field crew that inspected it reported it closed.

“You don’t need to give us noise pollution and disrupt the whole neighborhood for a crossing that is a crossing in name only,” said Konon, who lives nearby.

Konon, who moved into the area in 2009, has communicated with the city of Shawnee and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway trying to find a way to cut down on the noise, which he believes would push property values up.

But BNSF is waiting for the city to make the next move while the city is waiting on the railroad.

The city says it can’t call that crossing closed until the railroad provides alternative access to the private property on the other side of the tracks.

“The city didn’t create this problem,” said Shawnee city engineer Mark Sherfy.

The railroad says it can’t stop sounding its horn until local government designates it as a closed crossing, according to Federal Railroad Administration regulations.

“We would like to see the crossing closed and would be willing to accommodate that land owner using a different crossing to access their property,” said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams.

The city is open to a different access point for the property, but expects the railway to provide a road that matches city standards for public roads, and Sherfy said the city hasn’t received a proposal for a paved street from BNSF. Konon’s suggestion that a quiet zone be implemented if the crossing couldn’t be closed isn’t likely to go anywhere. Sherfy said while the city likes the option, putting in the safety requirements to mitigate the safety of the horns is a substantial budget item.

“With a lot of competing items, it is not one of the high priorities,” Sherfy said.

So far, the process seems to mirror the word Konon uses to describe how he feels: stuck. While he acknowledges that the property owners have an access right, he points out that the owners must be getting to their land a different way as the crossing has been locked for several years.

“There is access to one property that isn’t used…Does that override the thousands that hear the trains?” Konon asked.

Another resident, Sean Smith, who said he was speaking for himself and several neighbors, echoed Konon’s complaints.

“It’s constant,” he said. “I think we all understand it’s a safety thing, but there has to be an alternative.”

Smith has not contacted city or railway officials yet, but said neighbors are talking about getting a petition together.

“We’re just not really too sure what to do,” he said.

Konon hopes to eventually hash out specifics with city officials, neighbors and folks from the railroad.

“I just want to get some sleep,” he said.

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