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NE rail crossings causing critical conditions

Neighbors say people will be hurt until changes are made.

A serious crash near the Gibbs Sprawl and Walzem railroad crossing has some neighbors turning up the volume on their cries for solutions to a big conflict between traffic and trains.

San Antonio police said when a train came to a dead stop at the rail crossing there on Sunday morning, one driver who got tired of waiting for the train to move on made a life-altering decision.

Police said the 78-year-old driver of a small sedan made an illegal U-turn into the path of an SUV, with tragic results.

The force of the collision spun the Mitsubishi Mirage several times, deployed all the airbags in both vehicles, and disabled the brakes in the SUV, causing that driver to coast to a stop about 50 yards away.

The driver of the SUV was able to walk away, but the Mirage driver was rushed to the hospital.

People who live in the rapidly growing area say railroad grade crossings were fine for decades, when the area was mostly rural, but now that thousands of drivers speed through the area every day, something must change.

John Owens travels through the area daily and said he has experienced several near miss collisions caused by drivers trying to either beat a train or speed away from a blocked crossing.

Owens said “Our area is growing by leaps and bounds. We have new subdivisions going up on an almost daily basis.  This is increasing exponentially with our traffic flow and everyone is sitting in the same situation and it's critical.”

Owens said his biggest wish is that someone would come up with a way to warn drivers about long waits.

“Because of the (train) switching station that's in Kirby, it leaves us sitting here anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour trying to cross, so it cuts us off from critical things we need to do on time like medical appointments and getting children to school,” Owens said, adding “We need someone to talk about the scheduling of these trains to where we are able to at least predict when is the best time to come to a crossing.”

Owens said the detours to avoid the blocked crossings are onerous. 

“It leaves us driving down the highway one mile in one direction and two miles in the other direction, so I speak not only for me but for this whole community.  I can guarantee you that we lose sleep, we say our prayers as we come to these crossings,” Owens said.

There are no cheap solutions to the issue. One project that failed to be in included in a recent bond project called for an overpass at Rittiman and Gibbs Sprawl.

The $35 million dollar price estimate got the project pushed into "future funding" status, meaning it has yet to be placed on the list for the next round of bond projects.

Owens said because a local solution is not in the works, he plans on reaching out to State Representative Barbara Gervin-Hawkins and State Senator Jose Menendez. Owens said he is looking for like-minded people who will join him in an effort to push for state or national funding.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Public Works Department said prior opportunities to study and improve the issue via a capital infrastructure project "failed to receive sufficient public support." 

"The same challenge would currently exist for this intersection and the railroad crossing," the department's statement reads. "A capital project designed to address street traffic congestion concerns by either bypassing the crossing (or vice-versa) would require federal, state, and MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) funding, reviews and approvals, as well as support from UPRR (Union Pacific Railroad) since they retain right-of-way for their railroads."

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