EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—For some, the Thursday just before Memorial Day Weekend marked an epilogue of sorts for a stretch of rough city roadway that dogged Marinette city officials and residents alike for several years.
“Mayor Steve Genisot and City Engineer Brian Miller have been trying for years to get this (road and railroad crossing project) accomplished,” former Marinette Alderman John Marx stated over one year ago during a city council meeting that on April 14, 2020.
Several months prior to that date, in November of 2019, the EagleHerald proffered an analogy that compared the once jarring crags that cut across the State Street railroad crossing to the great, gaping chasm known as Valles Marineris. The Marineris spans a width of up to 373 miles while slicing a 1,865-scar across the barren surface of the Red Planet (aka Mars). The Martian gorge represents the largest canyon in the known Solar System and it can reach a depth of up to 5 miles.
Moreover, a flurry of critical comments in 2019, regarding State Street and more specifically its railroad crossing, populated social media newsfeeds.
But that was then.
On Thursday, after the final touches of roadwork wrapped up along the portion of the road that extends through City Park, the last of the barricades came down and the entire length of State entered a new era, one that offers a pleasantly passive passage from start to finish—from Hattie Street south to Mary Street.
The completion of State through City Park now permits full access to all the park’s amenities. Executive Director of Recreation & Events Gavin Scray confirmed Thursday that, following the completion of the roadwork and the application of hydroseeding to some grassy areas of the park, the barricades at either end of the park came down, opening up all facilities of the 40-acres of forested recreation in the middle of Marinette, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend. Hydroseeding is a process that facilitates grass growth and prevents soil erosion.
For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, all of Marinette’s parks offered all facilities and amenities to parkgoers. While other parks in the city opened those facilities on May 1, the State Street completion delayed the opening of City Park campground, pavilion and some other park amenities until Thursday.
And over the Memorial Day weekend, the cars, campers, bicyclists and other park goers that frequented what one might call Marinette’s “Central Park” served as an indication of the park’s value to many area residents.
THE STATE STREET SAGA
However, the completion of the City Park section of State wraps up a much longer and intricately more complicated struggle for city officials as they weeded through a multitude of paperwork, red tape and the often hampering bureaucratic tangles of the railroad industry’s hierarchy. It was a struggle tied directly to the rest of the street’s repairs and one that shines a light on the minutiae of details and complicated steps that city officials must navigate when it comes to the task of implementing infrastructure projects that help maintain community resources.
Because the Canadian National (CN) and the Escanaba & Lake Superior railroads own, operate and maintain the tracks at the railroad crossing, several “sticky points” emerged when trying to undertake State Street repairs, according to comments that City Engineer Brian Miller made to the City Council in November of 2019. Some of those obstacles related to attempts to contact and negotiate with the railroad regarding the timing of construction and other project-related details like various permitting processes. For example, a water main owned by the city that ran beneath the railroad 0tracks (owned by the railroad) presented various complicated issues. Replacing a water main introduced potential safety and other operational issues for the railroad. As such, in conjunction with time-consuming permits, planning and other logistics, the city needed official approval from the railroad in order undertake such a task and move the project through a review and approval process before the roadwork could even begin.
CN owns the two southerly-most tracks of the crossing while Escanaba & Lake Superior owns the north track. Over the years the crossing had significantly deteriorated, creating both a hazard to vehicles and passengers, with no action by railroad to repair the crossing even after several attempts in the form of letters and phone calls from Marinette officials to the railroads. EagleHerald articles dating back to June of 2017 confirm that similar attempts by Miller to contact and discuss repairs to the railroad crossing with CN’s government affairs division posed a slow and difficult obstacle to initiated a State Street reconstruction.
Another aspect that hampered progress stemmed from the railroad industry’s high regard for—and stringent adherence to—the safety of both its employees and the communities through which their trains pass.
“Safety is the core value of CN and informs everything we do,” a Media Relations and Public Affairs official with CN told the EagleHerald in April of 2020. “Any need for an outside party to interact with our private property (i.e. the railroad crossing) will be extensively reviewed to match our exacting standards that are in place to ensure the safe and reliable condition of the railroad network.”
A train that spans 150 cars, with each car weighing upwards of 70 tons when filled to capacity adds up to a single train that might weigh several thousand tons. Such enormous mass produces colossal momentum and requires more than a mile to come to a full stop after applying brakes.
Moreover, the timing and logistics of U.S. commerce rely heavily on the railroad. Delays on a seemingly isolated span of track in northeastern Wisconsin can reverberate throughout the more than 140,000 miles of the U.S. rail network. Such delays can resonate in deeper, translating translate to disruptions of U.S. economy and commerce. From energy to food and other consumer items, the American Association of Railroad estimates that U.S. freight rail accounts for about 57 tons per American annually of transported goods and about one-third of U.S. exports by volume.
Eventually, after persistent efforts in coordinating with both the CN and the Escanaba & Lake Superior, Miller hammered out an agreement in November of 2019 that solidified the details and timeline for the reconstruction of the crossing and a portion of State Street. The City Council promptly approved a project bid that resulted in the road and utility reconstruction of a large portion of State Street that coincided with the railroad’s repairs to the crossing.
An EagleHerald editorial in October of 2019 commended the persistent efforts by Miller in persevering to work with railroad officials to address and resolve the issue. The crossing and the road reconstruction were completed in the year of COVID (2020) followed up by the final touches to City Park’s State Street section completed over the month of May.
“We didn’t have enough funds last year to do the City Park (portion of State),” said Mayor Genisot. “And of course that has been on the list. After we finally got the railroad to commit to State Street then we put funds for the construction and ... we pushed up to Mary Street to finish it.”
Alas, Valles Marineris continues to retain its record as the largest know canyon in the Solar System. But really, was it ever in danger of relinquishing that title?