Weyauwega fights railroad in courts
Trains fined for blocking intersections
By Angie Landsverk
The city of Weyauwega’s right to cite a railroad for blocking intersections is conflicting with a federal law related to the movement of trains.
“We want the community to know we are doing all we can right now. We are exercising our local authority by ordinance and lobbying local legislators as well,” said City Administrator Patrick Wetzel.
When trains block city intersections, it impacts the city’s ability to carry out emergency services, he said.
“When a trains stops, and if it is blocking (State Highway) 110, we have to go significantly out of our way to get on the other side of the tracks,” Wetzel said.
Where trains stop also creates safety concerns, said Sgt. Brandon Leschke, of the Weyauwega Police Department.
“They leave one lane open. People will drive through and not be able to see or hear another train coming,” he said.
Wetzel said the way in which Weyauwega is situated is unique.
“We have one main crossing to get to the north side of the city. When that is blocked, response times to the north side of the city increase up to four or five times of what they typically are,” he said.
It also impacts nearby businesses, as well as residents.
People have missed flights and funerals because of blocked intersections.
A number of years ago, the city took steps to address the issue.
Wetzel believes it was July 2008 when the city created a ordinance, allowing a railroad to be fined when it obstructs a railroad crossing for 15 minutes or longer.
“We had instances where trains would sit four, six, eight hours,” he said.
Leschke said the consistent fine is $500 when this occurs.
Prior to 2014, when the city cited Canadian National, which does business as Wisconsin Central Ltd., the railroad paid the fines, he said.
Leschke said that from Feb. 6, 2014 to July 4, 2015, the city issued 56 citations against the railroad.
The fines totaled $44,270, he said.
“They stopped paying them and started contesting them in municipal court, because they are municipal citations,” Wetzel said.
Local ordinances and state law allow municipalities to issue such citations, he said.
However, state law and local ordinances conflict with the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which regulates the movement of trains, he said.
“In general, the argument with the federal law is state and local laws aren’t supposed to be imposing anything. They want continuous rules from state to state,” Wetzel said.
While federal law preempts state and local laws, the federal law does allow an exception for safety hazards or a community’s uniqueness.
When the railroad began contesting the local citations, Weyauwega’s process began in municipal court.
Last September, a municipal trial before Municipal Judge Laurie Shaw took place.
“In the meantime, we were aware of other municipalities having issues,” Wetzel said.
At least two cases went to circuit court, where the court ruled in favored of the railroad, he said.
“Our municipal court ruled in favor of the city,” Wetzel said.
In her March ruling, Shaw stated, “I find that the unique geography of the area related to local safety indicates a need for local government to enact and local law enforcement to enforce the local safety ordinance which is tailored to the specific need of the city of Weyauwega.”
Wetzel said, “It was a huge case for municipal court. It was about a year from when the process began until the ruling because it is a very complicated issue.”
The railroad’s argument is the city’s situation is not unique at all, Wetzel said.
On March 15, the railroad appealed the municipal court ruling to circuit court and is waiting for the case to be scheduled.
Wetzel said the city is trying to see if it can work with the railroad to mitigate negative impacts of its traffic or to allow for better scheduling of when trains stop.
“They’ve been open and responsive,” he said. “We’ve been working with Congressman Reid Ribble’s staff for two years on this – the impact the federal law has on this community.”
Wetzel said the railroad is following the federal law, and one way to clarify the issue in Wisconsin would be to have it go through the courts.
“The other way,” he said, “would to be lobby for a change to the federal law related to the movement of trains. Now, when they are timed out, they are done.”
If a conductor was allowed to move and park a train in a safe manner once a train times out and thus prevent an intersection from being blocked, that is a change the city would be open to, Wetzel said.