BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - For most people, a train is a nuisance, causing a minor delay as we drive north and south. But for cities, having to work with CSX Transportation on an infrastructure project can mean huge delays and big money.
CSX train tracks split almost every Coast city in two, and that can cause problems for the cities when work needs to be done on roads, ditches or utilities near the tracks.
“The only time we can get the rail companies interested or get them to move with any sense of urgency is when they need something," said Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes during a December interview. “But when we need something, it’s always ‘We’ve got to work it out’ or 'There’s got to be some kind of trade-off.’”
And it’s not just South Mississippi.
“It is almost universal talking to mayors across the country in dealing with the rail entities," Hewes said. "They are very, very slow to respond, and it’s usually on their terms.
“The other thing is the timing of the response,” Hewes said. “Whether it is an inquiry or an actual permit that is needed, usually it takes a great deal of time, sometimes years, not months, to work things out.”
CSX is a massive company. The Class I rail company moves 1,200 trains every day over 21,000 miles of track.
The line running through South Mississippi is only about 80 of those miles, a fraction of the CSX total track.
Still, it is important to Coast cities that they are heard by CSX when they need to be.
“Let me tell you, they’re the boss of the railroad tracks right there and if you try to get with them, they can pretty much do what they want to do,” said Gautier Mayor Phil Torjusen in November. “I have no clue why they have that attitude of it, but they do. That’s the attitude we get.”
For the railroad, time is money. For the cities, working with CSX costs time and money - time in delayed projects and money paid to the railroad for fees.
“Their thing is, this railroad track is their’s, the right of way is their’s, and they lose money if the trains are not rolling,” said Waveland Mayor Mike Smith. “I get all that. But make it easier to work along with the cities, too. That’s all we want to do, is work with the railroads, not against them.”
CSX Railroad in Mississippi provides a vital link from East Coast markets to the rail yard in New Orleans, where it connects to the rest of the country. Ports across the Coast rely on that rail access, especially Port Bienville in Hancock County, where they move more than 500,000 tons of materials by rail. Port Bienville provides about 25 percent of the county’s tax base.
But when a local public works project disrupts CSX’s business operations, it costs the railroad money and could interrupt local service.
To compensate, cities have to pay fees to CSX to do work along the tracks and wait for permission to do the work.
Fees paid to CSX can include reviewing, permitting, licensing, engineering, oversight and flagging.
CSX sets those fees, they are not negotiable, and they must be paid in advance.
The CSX manual on public projects states that local projects “do not directly benefit and, in some cases, create risk to, and hurdles for, CSXT’s core business...For these reasons, CSXT seeks payment for its costs and expenses incurred in connection with project review or construction.”
“It’s costly just for them to look at a piece of paper,” said Gulfport Public Works Director Wayne Miller. “And then the months it could take, it could take 18 months, it could take a couple of years for them to just review it and send it back to us. So it does slow projects down and we have to build that into our timelines for the projects.”
Pascagoula, Gautier, Biloxi, Gulfport and Waveland officials all told WLOX that they have had projects delayed by CSX and have paid thousands in fees.
Biloxi paid CSX $1.5 million in 2019, including $286,000 in fees to allow them to place water, sewer and drainage lines along a four-tenths of a mile section. That comes to $71,000 per tenth of a mile. In addition, they paid $2,200 a day for three CSX employees to oversee the work.
“We have to pay our way,” said City of Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel. “We have to do things the way they want them done. And quite frankly, when it gets to getting anything done, it’s long, expensive and cumbersome.”
While CSX makes it clear in their literature that they expect to be compensated when projects on their right-of-way may interfere with the flow of their trains, they are less concerned with maintaining that land adjacent to its tracks.
Coast cities have to use their own public works crews to cut grass on both sides of the tracks, costing them thousands of dollars in labor a year.
“When you see city workers out there cutting the grass on the side of the railroad, we’re looking at at least $50,000 a year,” Creel said. “It’s not just Biloxi; it’s all cities having to go through that along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
CSX has offered little response to questions about their fees. They have referred us to their published handbook which states that the fees serve to compensate CSX for potential disruptions to their operations. CSX has rebuffed numerous requests to explain what the different fees are for.
In November, Gautier Mayor Phil Torjusen began getting calls from citizens about train crossings being blocked by CSX crews. Gautier has only three crossings and two of them were blocked.
“The way we were finally able to get some communication with them was not by telephone call because we’re very rarely able to get through to them,” Torjusen said. “What we did was one of our planning department personnel came down here at the tracks where they were unloading some materials and talked to them and asked them what was going on.”
That, according to many Coast cities WLOX News Now have spoken with, is typical of communication between them and the railroad company.
The CSX guide for cities says: "The company wants to be a good neighbor in the communities where we operate. We want to make it easier for communities...to work with us."
Torjusen explained that all he wanted was to get a call from CSX about the coming delay so they could plan for the traffic disruption. While he was talking, a Gautier Police car responding to a call had to wait at the Ladnier Road crossing while the CSX crew positioned one of their vehicles on the track.
Waveland Mayor Mike Smith has had similar experiences.
“I went to their office in Bay St. Louis, and there was nobody there. They had numbers to call, did not work. So trying to get in touch with somebody to work along with them to get some of these things accomplished that we need is very difficult to do.”
CSX sent this response to the mayors’ complaints.
“CSX has held several meetings with South Mississippi public officials and we are committed to maintaining an open line of communication on any matters or projects that involve our railroad.”
CSX is in the midst of a routine maintenance project on their tracks from Mobile to New Orleans, which will likely affect Coast motorists between now and June. The railroad company said they will work closely with communities if any crossings have to be temporarily closed.
Mayors and motorists alike hope they will provide that information in a timely manner.
“We just want a better partnership," said Hewes. "And more consistency in the manner of response, the timing of response and the willingness to work through issues.”
WATCH PARTS ONE AND TWO OF ‘COSTLY CROSSINGS’ BELOW AND TUNE IN AT 10 P.M. ON FEB. 6 TO CATCH PART 3 OF THIS INVESTIGATIVE SERIES.