The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Freight trains crawling in the downtown: Is it like death and taxes?

In Chuck Swore, City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Justin Shields, Tom Podzimek on March 23, 2008 at 12:14 am

In the movie, “Groundhog Day,” comedian Bill Murray dazzles his music teacher when he instantly catches on to playing the piano. “Yes, but my father was a piano mover,” Murray tells the piano teacher.

It was a little that last week when Jerry McGrane, council member and neighborhood leader, weighed in on the intricacies of the United States railroad industry and its ongoing effects on downtown Cedar Rapids by saying he’d lived next to railroad tracks much of his life. He worked for the railroad for a time, too, he said.

“Good luck,” McGrane told his council members on trying to get the get three or so railroads that run through and near downtown to cooperate with the city.

City Hall has created seven task forces, which are comprised of city employees and citizens, to focus on changing the landscape of what has been a struggling downtown.

The task forces are looking at downtown housing, traffic, the proposed Intermodal Transit Facility, an amphitheater, RiverWalk and riverfront park, the future of the downtown arena and railroad noise and congestion.

The latter group’s effort is a reminder that the periodic, head-pounding congestion that is caused by freight trains – some crawl through downtown, but most are only performing switching maneuvers — is a signature of Cedar Rapids as much as is its City Hall, sitting on an island in the middle of a river.

Early on in its work, the downtown-train task force and the Downtown District announced they had negotiated a pledge from the Union Pacific Railroad in which the railroad said it would try to stay out of the downtown streets during morning and evening rush hours. A railroad spokesman at the time promised a little less than the Downtown District had, but the proposal seems to be working.

Last week, Bill Meeks, the city’s traffic engineering project administrator and task force head, talked about the stiff costs in trying to establish a quiet zone downtown. To get freight trains to stop blowing horns at crossings, which they are required now to do, the city would need to erect gates at each rail crossing downtown, costing an uncertain, many millions of dollars depending on how far the city wanted to extend the quiet, he said.

The state of Iowa does have about $4 million a year in grant money, Meeks told council member Tom Podzimek, but requests for such money, he added, already were backed up 3 to 5 years.

The idea that intrigued some on the council the most was the thought of track construction of some kind that would allow the railroads to perform switching activities north of the First Avenue East intersection and the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel. Such a remedy would cut down on both congestion and noise, council members noted.

Meeks said such a solution is not an easy one and requires the railroads and the downtown industries they serve to sort through issues of track ownership and track sharing and railroad service.

Moving the railroad switching above downtown was an idea broached by former City Council member Chuck Swore before his defeat last fall in a reelection bid.

Swore said that 90 percent of the train traffic downtown comes from switching maneuvers, not from trains coming and going, and he suggested building new tracks on Cedar Lake to facilitate train switching.

Council member Justin Shields asked Meeks if customers would be turning to railroads and away from semi-trailer trucks as fuel prices rise.

 Meeks thought that was possible. And that would mean more downtown rail traffic, he said.

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