Elected officials representing us in Washington could provide a real service by leaning on the Federal Railroad Administration to modernize the rules governing how railroad companies must interact with the rest of the traveling public.
The issue came up recently when The Daily News reported about the old and ostensibly unsolvable problem of trains parking across Harborside Drive in Galveston at random times and for random periods of time.
It’s an old story but with a recent hook in the Port of Galveston’s plan to partner with Royal Caribbean Cruises to build a third passenger terminal at Pier 10 for about $100 million.
The port is predicting that 1 million people will pass through the two terminals it already operates this year and Royal Caribbean officials are willing to bet a vast amount of money that there’s an even larger market of people willing to sail from Galveston.
The best way for all that traffic to reach the port is via Harborside Drive, which raises an obvious question about what will happen when that flood of cruise passengers finds a train parked across the tracks.
That potential gridlock has implications beyond the port. Harborside also is the best route for ambulances, not to mention employees and people with routine business, to reach University of Texas Medical Branch hospitals, for example.
It’s not hard to imagine traffic backing up far enough to affect Broadway and 61st Street, which has implications for the rest of the tourism industry and for everybody who works or lives on the island.
The only question, and it’s a big one, is what to do about that. Neither the city, nor the state of Texas has the legal authority to enforce rules about when and for how long a railroad company can impede road traffic.
The state attempted an anti-blocking rule, but the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001 ruled federal law preempted state laws and the rule was removed in 2005, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
What’s needed is for the Federal Railroad Administration to amend the Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act of 1994 to require railroads at least cooperate in programs meant to reduce the amount of time railcars can block roads.
States apparently have repeatedly over the years requested the administration modernize its rules to that effect, but with no luck so far.
While the clash between two vital forms of transportation might have special implications for Galveston, it’s a problem all over the country, especially in small towns without the wherewithal to land major road projects.
While rules limiting the length of time railcars can block tracks might be too much, rules requiring the companies to work with local governments to minimize the problem wouldn’t be.
The other option would be for elected leaders to look for other ways, and money, to solve the problem. Bridges carrying road traffic over the tracks crossing Harborside, for example, would solve the problem.
What’s clear is that nothing will happen to improve this worsening problem until the people we send to Washington get it on their to-do lists.
• Michael A. Smith