Tardy track work that irks motorists, property owners also has officials pressuring railroad
Delays in repairs to Union Pacific Railroad crossings in the Town of Grafton that are frustrating motorists and property owners have also sparked protests from local officials.
“Our biggest concern is the amount of time it’s taking for the work to be completed,” said Jon Edgren, the Ozaukee County assistant public works director, who is monitoring the repair projects.
“If they’re going to start working on a road crossing, we need to have that one done first before another road is closed. That’s what we’re trying to make sure happens.”
The Union Pacific is repairing five crossings in the town as part of upgrades to company lines from Milwaukee to Sheboygan this summer. Included in the work is replacing 26 miles of rails and rebuilding surfaces at 62 crossings.
In Grafton, the company completed work on crossings at Falls Road and Ulao Road (County Highway Q), but both projects took longer than expected. The Ulao Road work ran more than a week late and wasn’t completed until July 26.
The company also plans to repair crossings at Lakefield Road, Ulao Parkway and Pioneer Road (County Highway C). Each project requires the railroad to secure a right-of-way permit from either the town or county (based on jurisdiction), post detour signs and reroute traffic.
Although Lakefield Road has been closed since July 17, no work was started as of early this week. It was originally scheduled to be completed by July 19.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Town Chairman Lester Bartel said. “We’ve had a lot of complaints from residents and businesses.
“It’s understandable that there will be inconveniences because the repairs are needed, but it’s difficult to understand when you don’t see anything being done at all.”
Town Clerk Amanda Schaefer said communicating with Union Pacific officials has been difficult, in part because the company is headquartered in Nebraska and employs out-of-state work crews.
In addition, traffic control at work sites is provided by another firm.
“We have received some updates, but it’s difficult to get answers,” she said.
Officials said the Falls Road project was started without proper signs or a detour route. In addition, vehicles have been detoured from county highways to town roads not designed to handle heavy traffic volumes.
Grafton Fire Chief William Rice voiced concern with long delays in repairs, noting potential problems for emergency vehicles traveling between Lake Michigan and I-43.
“The railroad seems to be somewhat disorganized,” Rice said. “The county, town and fire department have been pressuring them to be more responsive.”
Fortunately, Rice said, his department has had only one call east of the Union Pacific tracks since repair work started.
During an afternoon storm Sunday, July 27, wind toppled road-closed signs on Lakefield Road. When a motorist arrived at the crossing and didn’t see the signs, she drove a minivan onto the tracks, rattling the vehicle and triggering an airbag, Rice said.
After the woman walked from the scene and called for help, ambulance service was dispatched. She did not appear to be seriously injured and declined to be transported, Rice said.
Edgren said the county is doing what it can to expedite repairs and minimize the impact on motorists, including requiring Union Pacific to work on only one crossing at a time.
In response to the company’s request to close Pioneer Road, he said a permit would only be issued if the railroad provides a message board giving at least two-days notice of the closure, completes repairs at the Lakefield Road crossing first, and agrees to limit future road closings to five days.
“My goal is to have them thinking it through before they start these projects,” Edgren said. “They are a large corporation with a lot of hands involved, which makes communication difficult.”
A Union Pacific official attributed the delays to equipment breakdowns he said have made it impossible to complete work on schedule.
“We had a rail gang ready to work, but equipment malfunctions caused problems, and replacing that equipment has resulted in delays,” said Mark Davis, director of corporate relations for Union Pacific’s Northern Region.
“We appreciate everyone’s concerns, but there can be a variety of problems that arise at each work site. In addition, each crossing surface is a little different.”
Davis said work on the Lakefield Road crossing is expected to be done this week, with the company then scheduled to proceed with the Pioneer Road and Ulao Parkway projects.
After completing repairs in the Town of Grafton, Union Pacific plans to continue work in the county at crossings on Mink Ranch Road and Highway KW at Dixie Road.
Bartel said he’s hopeful repairs will be completed more quickly now that the county has stepped forward.
“I want to give kudos to Jon Edgren for getting involved and being on top of things,” Bartel said.
“It’s not easy trying to deal with a railroad, and having him work on this has made a difference.”
Image information: THE UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD crossing on Lakefield Road in the Town of Grafton remains closed this week due to repair work. Delays in rail repairs at the intersection and other crossings have sparked complaints from motorists, property owners and local officials. Photo by Sam Arendt