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Local intervention delays railroad crossing closure

The intervention of local officials has delayed a railroad crossing closure scheduled on Whichards Beach Road until early next year.

Local residents, businesses and county officials were caught off guard Tuesday by the announcement of a railroad crossing closure that would have shut the road down for 3 to 12 hours on Wednesday or Thursday.

The closure was slated to begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday or 6 a.m. Thursday, potentially interrupting the daily routines of nearly 400 households on the road, as well as the operations of Iconic Marine Group and Twin Lakes Campground. The road’s only outlet is onto U.S. Highway 17 Business.

At issue was not the closure itself, but short notice from the Norfolk Southern Railroad Company to residents, businesses and county officials responsible for ensuring public safety on the road.

Mary Pinkston, human resources and safety manager at Iconic, said the company was notified of the closure at around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, just over 24 hours before the maintenance was slated to take place. For the boat builder, the closure would have meant delays in production and a forced a day off for more than 270 employees at the plant.

“It’s not just about us not being able to build a boat tomorrow afternoon or Thursday, it’s how many hours they’re going to miss from their paychecks,” Pinkston said.

Looking for advice on any recourse, Pinkston called N.C. Representative Keith Kidwell for advice. By that afternoon, Kidwell, along with a host of local officials, including Beaufort County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Evans, representatives from Beaufort County Emergency Services and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, were gathered at the crossing to assess the situation.

Their main concerns centered on a perceived lack of timely notification from the railroad company and its contractor, as well as potential disruptions from the timing of the closure.

While Beaufort County Emergency Services learned of the closing at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, BCSO Chief Deputy Charlie Rose says the Sheriff’s Office wasn’t aware of the closure until Tuesday afternoon. Kidwell says the North Carolina Department of Transportation was not notified prior to him calling the department Tuesday.

“For us, I think notification was the biggest issue,” said Chris Newkirk, Beaufort County’s operations chief of fire/emergency management. “If we would have gotten enough notice to let residents know and plan accordingly, that would have gone a long way.”

While the crossing would have been closed to general traffic, a temporary crossing would have allowed emergency vehicles and school buses to cross the tracks during maintenance.

Tuesday afternoon, Norfolk Southern media relations personnel confirmed that track maintenance at the site will be postponed for several weeks, and that the company will work closely with local and state officials to coordinate the scheduling and logistics of the closure.

“I fully understand they need to get the project completed, but I think it’s not unreasonable to ask them to give us more substantial notice. Less than 24 hours is unacceptable,” Kidwell said. “We also need to come up with a way of notifying all the citizens appropriately. The Sheriff’s Office wasn’t aware of it; commissioners weren’t aware of it; DOT wasn’t aware of it. That’s unacceptable.”