A railroad construction project has temporarily closed Old Hobart Road into Miller, causing outcry from residents worried of public safety issues. | Jerry Davich/Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 26, 2014 6:09AM
When does a public works project become a public safety concern?
This question is at the heart
of an ongoing bridge replacement project in the Miller section of Gary, which is infamous for having limited access routes. Many residents and commuters already feel they’re at the mercy of the street-level railroads that zigzag their community, dictating when motorists can enter or exit.
“Waiting on Another Train” could be Miller’s theme song, long-time residents agree.
The railway construction project on U.S. 12, just east of Lake Street, has closed one of Miller’s busy access routes, Old Hobart Road, which connects to U.S. 20. For decades, this route has allowed access to Atcheson Drive, a short L-shaped road where motorists and emergency response vehicles could avoid being stopped or delayed by trains.
With that route closed, until at least October, motorists and emergency response vehicles must drive around it, either via Lake Street to the west or County Line Road to the east. As an outsider who frequents Miller on a regular basis, I’ll be the first to complain that this is a pain. But there is a larger issue at hand, some residents claim.
“Human lives are at risk,” said Tom Coleman, a long-time resident and public activist.
“I believe the public safety of Miller residents is caught between both the state and federal government bureaucracies. The ball is being passed back and forth,” he told me.
Coleman has contacted numerous government offices to make his case against the road closure, claiming all it will take is one person’s death to prove his point.
“Police, fire trucks and ambulances have been stopped by trains recently. Does the state of Indiana expect emergency vehicles to sprout wings and fly over the trains?” he asked sarcastically.
With beach season in full bloom and Gary schools reopening soon, Coleman and other disgruntled residents fear the worst before October’s completion date for the project.
“I understand that the bridge needs to be replaced, but what I don’t understand is why an overpass or underpass has never been built,” said Portage resident Sharon Givens, who waited for a train to cross Lake Street to get to her job in Miller.
I spoke with several people waiting for trains to access Miller, and the closure of Old Hobart Road has them even more upset.
“I watched an ambulance wait for 15 minutes at a train crossing and I had to wonder about the patient inside. Or worse yet the patient they were trying to get to,” said Hershel F, who lives just off Old Hobart Road.
Coleman, for one, has contacted the city, the governor’s office, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, CSX Railroad and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Coleman is nothing if not dogged and determined.
“Fires can spread and human beings can die waiting at these railroad crossings,” he wrote to Visclosky’s office. “Why are railroads more important than the safety of human beings? Do children or the elderly have to die waiting in or for an ambulance because of railroad trains? The public safety of the entire Miller community is being determined by the railroads.”
On his behalf, Visclosky’s office contacted INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning, who replied to Visclosky with a letter dated June 25. Amid all the bureaucratic niceties and formalities, Browning said in a nutshell that the replacement project will be completed in October and all emergency response services have been notified.
In other words, we know what we’re doing and thanks for asking.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said her office is well aware of the train delays and, on Wednesday, she met with CSX representatives for some answers.
“We recognize the inconvenience it poses to residents as well as the danger these delays may cause in the event of an emergency,” she told me. “We have sent several letters to CSX asking for their assistance on this matter. I look forward to receiving a response and suggested plan of action within a week.”
So it appears that the ball of responsibility is back in CSX’s court, where it was first put into play. Can anything be done to ease the delays? I guess we’ll find out “within a week,” but I wouldn’t count on it. This is an old issue here with simply a new twist.
“This is an emergency situation, one of life and death,” Coleman maintains. “Shame on the local, county, state and federal governments to put human lives at risk and allow this situation to exist. Why gamble with human lives?”
I’m sure the powers at work in this situation feel they are not gambling with lives, but merely with the lifestyles of residents, visitors and commuters. And that, they surely reason behind closed doors, is not much of a gamble at all.
It will take someone’s death, nothing less, to prompt significant change with this situation. Until that death — whether it’s in a school, on a beach or at a resident’s home — this issue will remain stalled at the juncture of indifference and irresponsibility. And all the horn blowing in the world won’t make it budge.
Is this us?
“Dear Mr. Davich, I would not live in Indiana if I didn’t have to,” the letter began. “I believe there is an above-average number of poorly educated people living in Indiana.”
The 59-year-old Porter County man wrote in great detail about the woes, troubles and challenges in our corner of the state. He spoke of our poor educational system, our ignorant motorists, and why so many Hoosiers see the world through dogmatic, even simple-minded stereotypes.
“I just have the impression there are a lot of middle class people in Porter County and throughout the state who live rather meaningless lives, despite their relative affluence,” he wrote.
OK, yes, go on, I’m intrigued. So much so that he will be a guest on my radio show today. Tune in at noon, at WLPR, 89.1-FM. Call in with your feedback at 769-9577.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.