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Driving You Crazy: Why is there a median on 104th at the railroad tracks making it impossible to turn around?

Why is there not an out for the cars?
104th at the railroad
Posted at 4:37 AM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 09:23:15-05

Anny in Commerce City writes, “What's driving you crazy? On 104th Ave., just east of Highway 85, there is a set of train tracks. Sometimes, a train will be unloading or switching, blocking the intersection. There is a median there that prevents anyone from turning around on both the east and westbound sides. I was wondering why that median is there, making it impossible to turn around and get out? I completely understand that the trains have right of way there, I’m just asking why there’s not an out for the cars?”

There is a lot to this story Anny, especially as it relates to the trains that run and sometimes stop along that corridor. The Colorado Department of Transportation does have a plan to address that issue in the distant future. Since 104th Ave. doubles as Colorado State Highway 44, CDOT has jurisdiction. However, they have an intergovernmental agreement between CDOT, Commerce City and the Union Pacific Railroad right at the railroad crossing.

The raised median along 104th Ave. east of Highway 85, was constructed by Commerce City over a decade ago. CDOT told me the reason for the median was to conform to the guidelines regarding the amount of space needed for a turnaround to be constructed. They say it would be too difficult to accommodate the turnaround infrastructure without more space between Highway 85 and the railroad tracks between the east and west sides of 104th Ave. Part of that space they would need includes the room for vehicles who would be flipping from eastbound to westbound and waiting at the light back at Highway 85.

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The City of Commerce City Public Works Department told me they constructed the raised median without a turnaround to deter drivers from going around the crossing arms when they are down. They cited safety around trains as they approach, which is a common concern at some crossings in Commerce City. That being said, it is easy to see the numerous tire marks in the dirt as some frustrated drivers decided not to wait and go up and over the curb to make the U-turn back to Highway 85.

The bigger issue than the raised medians might be how long trains block that crossing at 104th Ave, as well as other crossings along the Highway 85 corridor. Commerce City told me they have 24 at-grade railroad crossings and stopped trains have been a long-standing issue that causes a great deal of frustration with drivers and residents. Stopped trains can also be a matter of life and death. The Washing Post looked into several nationwide incidents where trains blocking a roadway delayed emergency responders to the point paramedics and other first responders couldn’t get to emergencies. Firefighters with South Adams County Fire said they have been dealing with trains blocking their emergency response for years. Commerce City told me one of their major frustrations is they don’t have any jurisdiction over the railroad operations and there is little to no direct recourse for blocked crossings that last a substantial amount of time.

A former train engineer for Union Pacific told me during an interview on my Driving You Crazy podcast, they understand the disruptions their long trains create in the communities they operate in, and they do everything they can to stay off of those crossings longer than they need to. He added that when they know they will block a road, they will continually communicate with their dispatch center and operating managers about when they can move the train to clear a blocked intersection.

“We do our best to limit the amount of time any crossing is blocked on a mainline track. Our business and our customers depend on BNSF to keep our trains moving. When our trains experience a situation that forces them to stop BNSF works to correct or resolve the situation as quickly as possible to resume the safe movement of trains” Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway said.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) states there are no federal laws or regulations pertaining to blocked crossings. Although in late 2019, the FRA created a dedicated webpage where drivers can report blocked crossings. In the press release, the FRA stated, “blocked crossings pose potential safety risks, specifically in locations where trains routinely hinder roadway and pedestrian movement for extended periods. Frustrated drivers may attempt to clear the crossing before a train arrives. Likewise, pedestrians may be tempted to crawl between stopped railcars. Further, blocked crossings make people late for work, school and appointments, and contribute to roadway congestion.”

Over the past year there have been dozens of complaints logged to the Federal Railroad Administration blocked crossing incident page specifically after a train blocked 104th Ave. Reading through the comments, you can imagine the frustration pouring from the drivers who included their comments on the complaints form.

“This happens all the time and it shouldn't.”

“Absolute gridlock on either side of the intersection. This delay caused me to be late for work.”

“This is a common occurrence, multiple times a week, and the train is too long to go to a different crossing. This is completely unacceptable.”

“Every single day they blocked his crossing. Do something about it!”

“The train keeps going back-and-forth and not moving. I've been waiting for over 40 minutes stuck here.”

“Significant traffic impact. Drivers going over medians, or an embankment to turn around and use an alternate route.”

“Pedestrians were observed climbing on over, or through the train cars.”

“I'm going to get fired because this train blocks the only way to my job every single day.”

The FRA tried to explain the inconvenience.

“There may be legitimate operating and/or safety-related reasons for a crossing to be occupied by a slow or idling train,” the FRA said.

However, the agency encourages reporting so they can learn where, when, for how long, and the result of blocked crossings.

Five years ago, the City Government of Commerce City posted to their Facebook page a message asking drivers to continue to report when a train blocks any of their roadways.

“Help us, help you: Let the railroad companies know about train-related traffic issues. With two major railroad lines traversing the city, trains are often longer than the distance between roads and can block busy intersections. By reporting these issues directly to the railroad company it alerts them to continued trouble spots so they can help resolve train-related traffic problems,” the city's post said.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to limit how long a train can block roadways. The Don't Block Our Communities Act would prohibit rail carriers from blocking intersections with passing trains for more than 10 minutes. It would also require the FRA to investigate blocked crossing incidents reported by the public allow for fines to be issued to rail carriers for repeated violations. As of the publishing of this story, there have been no roll call votes related to this bill.

As for potential solutions, there has been talk for a long time about ways to improve Highway 85 including redesigning it to become a freeway with overpasses at the major intersections like at 104th. The 104th Ave. overpass plan would also extend an elevated branch east to go over the railroad tracks so this roadway blockage problem would be eliminated. Other ideas include changing the configuration of 104th to a diverging diamond or reroute traffic all together from that section of Highway 85 down Interstate 76 to a new interchange that would be constructed at Havana/108th Ave. leaving the old Highway 85 as a local street.

Commerce City transportation planners have been involved with the discussions to find a viable solution to the rail crossing problem at 104th and told me they have made some progress. There was a preliminary study completed considering the 104th Ave. overpass idea, but since 104th is a CDOT maintained road, that project would compete with larger, more prioritized CDOT projects around the state. I’m told the greater priority for resources has been placed to a potential Highway 85 overpass at 120th Ave. Commerce City received a grant to complete the environmental clearance and design phase of that project, which stands at around 25% complete. The grant also pays for some right-of-way acquisition to make that project feasible. The city tells me project funding has not yet been identified at this point, so it is hard to say when we will see any relief at either interchange.

Until then, Commerce City said they encourage people stuck at a blocked crossing to report their complaints directly to the railroad companies. BNSF: 1-800-832-5452 option 3, Union Pacific: 888-877-7267.

The median on 104th at the railroad tracks makes it impossible to turn around.

Denver7 Traffic Expert Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 25 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook,Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on any podcast app including iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify and Podbean.