Agreement remains elusive between Uniontown city officials and the Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad Company about who should be responsible for removing rail crossings that have become a safety concern for city officials and subsequent pavement restoration work.
Evidentiary hearings have been scheduled for March on the railroad company’s application to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to approve the abolition of eight rail crossings with roadways in the city, according to a prehearing order issued by Administrative Law Judge Emily DeVoe of the PUC’s Pittsburgh Administrative Law Judge Office last month.
The railroad company in April applied to PUC for approval to abolish eight rail at-grade crossings along the industrial track on East Penn, East Peter, East Main, East South, East Church, East Fayette and Dunbar streets as well as Pennsylvania Avenue.
City Solicitor Tim Witt has said that removal would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and that the city doesn’t want taxpayers to foot the bill.
In a prehearing conference memorandum to PUC Secretary Rosemary Chiavetta last month, Witt and county Solicitor Jack Purcell stated that the city has received many complaints regarding the condition of the railroad line, including damage to vehicles from the railroad lines, tripping and falling on the railroad lines and accessibility issues for those with limited mobility.
In Nov. 2018, the PUC asked the railroad company to make immediate repairs to the abandoned rail line to alleviate the city’s concerns about the safety of the rail crossing surface along Beeson Avenue.
The PUC observed that the bituminous paving along remaining rails was breaking apart and forming potholes, creating safety issues for both motorists and pedestrians. The PUC also noted that the city had asked the PUC to direct the railroad company to make short-term repairs and to ensure that the former crossings be properly abolished in accordance with a state statute.
Richard R. Wilson, an attorney for Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad Company, reported in a Sept. 2017 notice to the Surface Transportation Board that it had formally consummated the abandonment of its rail line within Uniontown’s city limits.
“(A)ll costs for the abolition of the crossings and all related work to be performed should be allocated solely to Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad as the most equitable approach,” Witt and Purcell argued in their memorandum to the PUC, citing benefit to the railroad, the city’s “financial hardship and limited resources,” advancement of public interest and the city’s willingness to assume all ongoing and continuing maintenance and repair obligations after the crossing removal work is complete.
A field investigation was held in July, and in September, the Bureau of Technical Utility Services, Rail Safety Section, requested the matter be referred to the Office of Administrative Law Judge.
Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad Company attorney Eric Hocky stated in a preconference hearing memorandum to the PUC that following the field conference, counsel for both the railroad company and the city had discussed settlement options, including possible sharing of the work or costs, and transfer of the property to Uniontown for salvage, trail or other uses in return for Uniontown performing all the work.
But no agreement was reached.
“Based on those discussions, SWP does not believe a settlement with Uniontown is likely,” Hocky wrote.
Witt and Hocky both said that SWP and the city are continuing to have settlement talks. Hocky declined further comment.
“(T)he tracks aren’t the city’s,” Witt said, adding that the city would be willing to provide traffic control, post and enforce detours as necessary and perform “minimal” paving to help the railroad company with removal.
In his memorandum, Hocky stated that in “approximately 2014,” SWP had discussions with the city and thought there was an agreement under which SWP would have agreed to pull the rail and Uniontown would take care of paving and additional work that the city wanted to do. But that arrangement was never finalized.
Hocky wrote that the railroad company will agree to remove the two state roadway crossings on East Main and East Fayette streets and to reconstruct the roadways in accordance with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation specifications.
“SWP expects to raise issues regarding the scope of the work to be done in a connection with the removal of the railroad crossing and the restoration of a smooth travelling surface, and the allocation of costs related thereto,” Hocky wrote.
The crossings to be removed are along the same path that city officials would like Uniontown’s long awaited portion of the Sheepskin Trail to follow.
K2 Engineering project manager Brian Lake noted at a Uniontown Redevelopment Authority meeting earlier this year that the trail could follow an abandoned rail line behind Grindle Station onto Beeson Avenue, behind Auto Land Hyundai of Uniontown, past the Uniontown Volunteer Firemen’s Social Hall on Dunbar Street and later to the old O.C. Cluss Lumber warehouse on Pennsylvania Avenue near the South Union Township border.
But forging that route, deemed optimal by city officials, would require acquiring the right of way from the Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad Company.
“SWP believes that the right of way could be useful for a trail, and that a trail entity could have an interest in acquiring the railroad right of way including assignment of the responsibility for the (c)rossings,” Hocky wrote in SWP’s application to abolish the crossings in April.
In their prehearing conference memorandum, Witt and Purcell stated that the city reached out to SWP “(a)lmost immediately” after the railroad company applied to PUC for approval to abolish the crossings in April, “including as it would affect or relate to the County of Fayette’s broader Sheepskin Trail project.”
The Sheepskin Trail is a 34-mile rails-to-trails project designed to eventually extend from Dunbar Township to Point Marion at the Pennsylvania/West Virginia state line, linking with the Great Allegheny Passage to the north and the West Virginia Mon River Rail-Trail System to the south.