At the urging of grieving parents, the Douglas County Commission is asking the state for help in upgrading a dangerous railroad crossing.
A year ago, Kyle Snyder, 22, slid down a snow-packed hill on a gravel road northwest of Lawrence and onto a railroad crossing. His truck was crushed by a BNSF train traveling more than 50 mph.
In the wake of their son’s death, Tom and Laury Snyder have been campaigning to make the crossing along East 950 Road safer.
Today flowers and crosses sit nearby as a reminder of Kyle Snyder’s death. Now, Tom Snyder said he wants to see flashing lights at the crossing as well.
“There’s a train crossing at the foot of a huge hill. It’s a dangerous situation, and all I’m asking for is a light,” he said.
The crossing isn’t heavily traveled. Counts from the Kansas Department of Transportation estimate it has less than 40 vehicles a day and trains pass through fives times daily. But among the traffic is a 65-passenger bus for the Perry-Lecompton school district.
School district and county officials acknowledge the crossing’s dangers.
From the north, the railroad tracks and crossing are clearly seen. However, coming from the south, the crossing is at the bottom of a steep hill. Warning signs are a couple hundred yards away on a flat stretch of the downward slope. From that point, the railroad tracks are obscured by trees. It’s not until a driver is nearly at the crossing that there is a long distance view of the tracks.
“It’s hard to see an oncoming train until you are almost to the tracks,” Perry-Lecompton Superintendent Dennis Yoder said.
In the winter, the road is prone to freezing because it is north-facing and covered by vegetation. Ice can make it hard for vehicles to stop before the crossing, county engineering division manager Terese Gorman told county commissioners at a meeting this week.
If a signal were installed, drivers could tell whether a train was coming at the flat part of the hill and wait for it to pass before descending down to the crossing.
“I think a warning would allow you to put on your brakes sooner than you would (now),” Gorman told commissioners.
Already on icy days, the school bus driver will have parents drop off their children at other bus stops to avoid venturing down the hill, Yoder said.
At the request of the Snyders, Yoder sent a letter to KDOT asking for help to make the crossing safer.
The amount of train and vehicle traffic the crossing has won’t qualify it for federal funds, KDOT coordinating engineer Mitch Sothers said. Crossings with more traffic receive higher priority.
The county also has the option of closing one crossing and receiving money to help put up signals at another one or to apply for state money, which is limited and is granted on a first-come, first-served basis.
On Wednesday, the County Commission signed a resolution asking for state money to install a signalized crossing, which could cost between $150,000 to $250,000. Each year the state sets aside enough money to cover about one-and-a-half crossings, Sothers said.
If the state were to approve the county’s request, the county wouldn’t have to pay anything. The state would cover 80 percent and the railroad the other 20 percent.
If the hill really is so steep that cars have difficulty stopping when there are icy conditions, the county might want to consider more drastic measures such as closing the crossing or lessening the grade of the road, Sothers said.
Closing the crossing would add time and distance to the Perry-Lecompton bus routes, Yoder said. And, Douglas County Public Works director Keith Browning said the county hasn’t discussed closing the crossing. Just three roads cross the railroad tracks between Lake View Lake and Lecompton. The closest one from East 950 Road is about a mile west.
“In that part of the county, there are not all that many roads,” Browning said.
Whether it’s lights or closing the crossing, for Snyder any safety upgrade could help prevent another tragedy.
“I lost my one and only child and that has devastated me and my wife,” he said. “I would hate to see anyone else go through what (we) have gone through in the last year.”