Saturday, February 29, 2020

Peak at the Future: CSX jams up South Tampa

South Tampa got a peak at their jammed up future when CSX shut down several roads cross CSX tracks for planned maintenance, allegedly without proper notification to the City of Tampa and residents. It sounded like Armageddon from reading the local press reports. The Eye daughter even called complaining her normal 15 minute commute home from work increased to over an hour. Politicians and bureaucrats weighed in.

Then it got really confused.

The Times first reported CSX unexpectedly closed more than a dozen railroad crossings in Tampa, jamming up traffic for hours.
If you tried to get anywhere in the South Tampa peninsula Wednesday, this is why you were frustrated by the sudden influx of traffic-choked streets and blocked roads: 
CSX Transportation unexpectedly shutdown more than a dozen roads along its railroad line — which follows the Selmon Expressway from W Morrison Avenue to W Gandy Boulevard — to perform routine maintenance. 
The weekday road closure surprised many drivers, forcing them to find alternate routes and take extensive detours. 
Traffic significantly piled up on major arteries like W Kennedy Boulevard, N Howard Avenue and N MacDill Avenue and drivers resorted to side streets like W Mississippi Avenue, W El Prado Boulevard, W Bay to Bay Boulevard and W Euclid Avenue — only to discover that parts of those roads were also blocked off.
The big question is why did not any one know about CSX's plans and the impending traffic snarl?
“The city is normally really good about notifying us,” said resident Mary Estes, who lives off Bayshore Boulevard. She said she spent more than 30 minutes stuck in traffic making a six-mile trip to the Trader Joe’s on W Swann Avenue. 
”Normally we hear about these road closures through or Facebook. In this case, we didn’t hear anything."
So many roads were closed at the same time. Traversing south Tampa was insane.
But Vik Bhide, the city’s director of transportation and stormwater services [Ed. no, he's the Manager Smart Mobility Division] said at a Wednesday news conference that city officials had no idea when CSX would carry out its plans — and no control over them, either. 
“This is not how we would have done things,” he said.
Bhide further stated that CSX should have applied for permits, did not stick to its schedule, and just started closing streets.

CSX issued a statement:
“As part of the company’s critical infrastructure maintenance program, CSX is conducting repairs on highway-rail grade crossings throughout Tampa. CSX has closely coordinated the closures with the city and we expect to reopen the Euclid Avenue, El Prado and Bay to Bay crossing tomorrow morning, barring any weather delays or other unexpected issues. CSX apologizes to residents who may be impacted by this and we appreciate the public’s patience while we complete this important work, which is critical to ensuring the safety of motorists using these crossings and to maintaining a safe, reliable freight rail network.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor briefed the City Council on Thursday on the SNAFU, and city council member weighed in as well.
[Tampa City Council member] John Dingfelder, who represents District 3, said eight city employees got a copy of the emails, which were sent on Jan. 28 and Feb. 3 alerting the city of work and city employees should have reacted but didn’t. 
“See something, say something,” Dingfelder said, "and that didn’t happen."
“We have to do our part to be proactive with CSX on these issues.”
Eight people received emails about the CSX road closings between January 28 and February 3 and did ... nothing?

Former WTSP Investigative Reporter commented on Facebook when the Times article cited above was posted in the Tampa and Hillsborough News from the Tampa Bay Times Facebook Group.
Former WTSP Investigative Reporter comments on Facebook
Jamal Thalji, the Times reporter who edited the story, replied to Deeson, and confronted him about his tone (which was a bit strong, but it is Facebook) and defended the article's reporter, Monique Welch. 

While Deeson eventually walked back some of his comments, he stayed on point regarding the traffic mess, clearly blaming the city.
Former WTSP Investigative Reporter 2nd comment on Facebook
100 emails a day? That's it? And nearly a month later, still can't find the time to read an important email from CSX shutting down streets for days in your city? Recall Dingfelder stated above 8 others in the city received emails from CSX.

Does anyone in Tampa City government read their emails?

The next day, the Times updated the situation with a fix. I am not making this up. More City of Tampa staff to read emails alert the public.
A day after more than a dozen roads were shut down on the South Tampa peninsula, a top city official told City Council the city needs to improve communication with CSX, the railroad company whose maintenance work surprised drivers and caused long delays. 
That message, from Infrastructure and Mobility administrator Jean Duncan to council members Thursday, was different from Wednesday’s response from city officials. Then, they blamed CSX for not following city permitting procedures after a day-long uproar from residents whose commutes stretched from minutes to hours. 
City officials initially said they only learned of the closures at railroad crossings a week before. But emails from CSX to the city from late January and early February that surfaced gave a different timeline.
Jean Duncan, City of Tampa Director Transportation and Stormwater Services, and Bhide, Manager Smart Mobility Division, admitted they had email and phone communications with CSX, but the public remained uninformed of the plans.
“See something, say something,” council member John Dingfelder said of city employees who had received the emails. 
“It’s better to say something,” he said. “But in this case, nobody did and we ended up with quite the mess.”
Duncan stated “I’m committing that we’re going to do better.”

Well, that settles that.

Duncan will have planning and development officials in charge of permitting to provide a report.

Now were getting somewhere. We'll get a report!
Duncan and Bhide enthusiastically embraced council member Bill Carlson’s motion to ask Mayor Jane Castor to hire staff to communicate public works issues to Tampa residents. ... 
That motion passed unanimously.
Here's hoping the new hire can use e-mail.

Of course, some of the city council sought to blame CSX.
Council member Joseph Citro and Chairman Luis Viera said much of the blame lies with CSX, which, they said, had more responsibility for Wednesday’s mess. 
“This could have been very easily handled if CSX had given better notice,” Citro said.
Can CSX get City of Tampa employees to read their e-mail?

CSX promptly issued a statement on Thursday “CSX apologizes for any impacts the closures may have caused to Tampa residents Wednesday. We are investigating this further to determine where improvements in the process can be made.”

In summary, CSX notified Tampa staff, at least 8 staff ignored the email, the city did nothing, CSX proceeded as planned, mayhem ensued, the city committed "to do better", will issue a report, expects to hire a new person, and CSX is blamed.

Incompetence? Apathy? Cop out? That's how it works around here.

Something tells me these types of traffic jams are the future in Tampa.

Keep that in mind when these same people get billions of your dollars for new transportation projects. Let's hope they can communicate plans by then.

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