Planes, trains but no automobiles: City of Davis continues to struggle with blocked railroad crossings amid pending lawsuit

Sierra Rains
On the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 28, the railroad crossing located on Main Street in Davis was reportedly blocked by a BNSF Railway train for almost an hour, causing traffic to become backed up.

At around 9 a.m. Tuesday morning Davis residents who cross the train tracks on Main St. during their daily commutes had to find an alternate route.

However, this is not uncommon for the citizens of Davis. Ask Davis Police Chief Danny Cooper if trains blocking the crossings in town is a problem and he’ll readily tell you it’s been a problem for years. “What year was Davis founded? Since about 1907,” Cooper said with a hearty laugh. “It’s been a real issue— it’s always been an issue.”

Local state legislators sought to address this problem by drafting HB 2472, which created a new section of state law enabling state law enforcement agencies to fine railroad operators for stopping in a location that blocks traffic for more than 10 minutes.

Though the bill was formally signed into state law in March, 2019 and went into effect in July, it was less than two months before a railway company filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the “Blocked Crossing Statute,” also known as Oklahoma Statute Title 66, Section 190.

Cooper said officials from Edmond, Moore and Davis had all issued citations for BNSF Railway trains blocking traffic during the time that the law was fully in effect.

“I think we’ve written four tickets so far, Edmond has written one and Moore, I think has written one,” Cooper said. “Right after we wrote our fourth ticket is when they filed the lawsuit against us and got an injunction where we couldn’t do it anymore.”

As a part of the lawsuit, the plaintiff, BNSF Railway Company, requested a preliminary injunction on Oct. 30, preventing the defendants from enforcing and prosecuting the statute.

The defendants include two municipal corporations, the City of Edmond and the City of Davis and three individuals being sued in their capacity as officials on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is also listed as an intervenor defendant.

Attorneys representing BNSF Railway are arguing that the Blocked Crossing Statute is preempted by federal law, including the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

“(They’re arguing) that we don’t have jurisdiction over them because they’re a federal entity, that railroad property is considered federal property,” Cooper said. “So we can’t write any more tickets for the train blockage until they get it settled in court.”

Communications Director for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, Alex Gerszewski, said the lawsuit is currently in the discovery process and a motion for summary judgement is expected to be filed in March.

However, it could be some time before the suit is settled and meanwhile, the City of Davis has reported several instances where traffic has been blocked for much longer than 10 minutes.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Main St. was blocked for almost an hour, Cooper said. “We’ve had one that blocked us for almost 28 hours.” And with the injunction in place, Cooper said their only way of enforcing the state statue is “Sitting at the railroad crossings and waving at the engineers— that’s about it.”

In Davis, there are railroad crossings located at Benton St., Main St. and Atlanta Ave. When traffic becomes blocked it creates lines of cars stretching clear from the west side of town to the east, which is about two miles, Cooper said.

A bypass located on Primrose Ln., two miles south of town, is one of the only ways commuters can take to get around the tracks if all crossings are blocked— presenting potential problems for local law enforcement in emergency situations.

“We’ll put it to you this way, we had an emergency call— it’s been about a year, but it took us almost 37 minutes to go two and a half blocks because we had to go all the way around,” Cooper said.

However, until the lawsuit is settled, Cooper said all they can do is wait. “We’re just in a waiting period right now. I’m pretty sure we’re going to end up in federal court before this is all over.”