The morning of November 16 was a frustrating one for thousands of drivers in Columbia — including State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D- Columbia.
Drivers were stuck in traffic while trains blocked crossings on three Columbia thoroughfares: Assembly Street, Whaley Street and Rosewood Drive.
“I went through (University of South Carolina’s) Greek Village and a girl rode up on a bicycle and said, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t sit here if I were you. This train was here when I went to class and it’s here again when I’m back.’ And mind you, this was rush hour!” he exclaimed. “In what world is that okay?”
Some were stuck in gridlocked traffic for more than an hour while trains sat on the tracks.
“Those of us who have lived here long enough know the shortcuts, but even the shortcuts are blocked,” he said. “We’ve got to do something.”
So he’s doing something. Rutherford said Monday he plans to prefile legislation that would increase the maximum fine for blocking a crossing longer than five minutes from $20 to $5,000 per lane blocked. If the train sits at the crossing between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., the fine would be $10,000.
“I’ve watched for years as trains have interrupted our lives, seemingly sometimes with impunity and without any regard whatsoever for the time that other people have on their hands,” Rutherford said. “The absurdity that two companies, in particular, have that much control of the lives of the people that live in Columbia and South Carolina struck me as odd and wrong and so I proposed legislation that would make it so that the companies would have to pay the fine.”
The measure would face difficult chances of being enforced. State train laws can be overridden if the train is stopped in order to meet federal regulations. Investigators must also determine a reason for the stop, which can be difficult durin rush hour traffic.
Rutherford said railroad companies should be able to send out traffic alerts via Waze, Google Maps or other apps. He said if railroads can’t fix the problem, they should offer a way to make it less inconvenient. “Tell people in advance that this train is going to be stopped,” he said. “They know it. They know it well in advance. Don’t just leave a train on the tracks blocking Assembly and Huger Streets for hours.”
“There is absolutely no reason in 2017 why people can’t be given a head’s up and know what’s going on and if not, then someone has to pay a hefty fine because of it,” he said. “I just think that they don’t think they have to care and I just think different.”
South Carolina Radio Network reached out to Norfolk Southern and CSX for a response to the proposed legislation. Norfolk Southern provided this response:
“Norfolk Southern and CSX met with the mayor and city officials Dec. 5 to discuss the blocked crossing incident. As a result, Norfolk Southern has made adjustments to its operations and is committed to continuing to work with the community.”