Project to elevate tracks at Mead, Pawnee stalls

When the city bought millions of dollars' worth of homes and businesses along Mead Street in south Wichita six years ago, it planned to elevate railroad tracks and free up traffic on Pawnee.

That hasn't happened.

Instead, Wichita is still holding about a dozen industrial and residential properties it acquired for $6.4 million.

Some buildings have been demolished, some are vacant, and one is being used rent-free by a nonprofit recycling center.

The future of the properties and railroad project seems increasingly bleak now that the city has hired a company to produce a citywide railroad master plan.

The city is asking its consultant, TranSystems, to examine railroad consolidations that could eliminate the need for an elevated Union Pacific railroad at Pawnee.

Even without the consolidation, it has become clear that the project the city invested in during 2002 and 2003 is not a top priority.

A 2007 regional study (also conducted by TranSystems) prioritized dozens of crossings ahead of the tracks running across Pawnee near Mead.

The Union Pacific crossing is 27th on a list of the Wichita area's 50 most hazardous crossings.

It carries about seven trains a day. Three vehicles have been hit by trains at the Pawnee crossing since 2002, according to Federal Railroad Administration records. No one has been injured.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that cross Pawnee just 10 blocks east of Mead near K-15 carry 38 trains a day and have the highest hazard rating of any crossing in the metro area.

Three vehicles have been struck there since 2002 as well. One person was injured, records show.

Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, whose district includes both crossings, has advocated for the city to concentrate on the Pawnee and Hydraulic crossings near K-15.

The city bought the properties on Mead before Skelton was elected to the City Council in 2005. His predecessor, Phil Lambke, died in 2008.

"We need to fix the most dangerous intersection first," Skelton said. "That's common sense to me. I don't have the excuse why the city didn't look there first."

The Union Pacific crossing near Mead was first envisioned as part of the recently completed Central Rail Corridor that runs through downtown above most major streets between Kellogg and 13th Street.

It was one of the last projects to be cut from the $105 million Central Rail Corridor project.

Raising the Union Pacific tracks at Pawnee would cost an estimated $17.3 million, according to the 2007 regional rail study.

Elevating the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks over Pawnee and Hydraulic would coast about $18.5 million.

Public Works Director Chris Carrier said limited money, changes in railroad traffic and shifts in local politics all play a role in which projects happen.

"What was happening is that we were starting to get disagreement amongst council members about where they wanted to go next with rail projects," he said.

Competing projects now include:

* Elevating the BNSF tracks over most intersections between Wassall and Lincoln.

* Elevating tracks over 21st Street and fixing a multitrack crossing at 25th and 29th streets north, near Broadway.

* Relocating tracks in west Wichita to free up 38 crossings.

The new, $512,000 master plan is expected to prioritize those.

But Carrier warned that it takes years to plan such projects because there are so many players — railroad companies, local, state and federal government agencies, and elected officials.

Carrier said he would like to consolidate railroads to as few corridors as possible to cut down on crossings.

"Whether we can accomplish that or not, who knows?" he said. "And would it be expensive? Very."

Big purchases

The city's biggest buy for the UP crossing at Pawnee was a set of buildings once owned by Kice Industries, a local company that makes industrial air and dust control systems.

The purchase and relocation accounts for about $6 million of the $6.4 million spent for the Pawnee rail elevation project. (Two properties on Pawnee acquired for about $220,000 would have been purchased for a street widening project anyway.)

Kice had moved its offices to Park City in 1996. But it maintained manufacturing operations in south Wichita until the city bought the property from the company in late 2003.

Drew Kice, vice president of the company, said he thinks he got a fair price.

He said the company probably would have moved its manufacturing to Park City as well — the city's offer just sped that up.

He said he had no comment about how he'll feel if the railroad project never happens.

John Philbrick, the city's property management director, said the vacant Kice buildings quickly drew vandals and copper thieves.

"The security issues were just immense," he said.

Philbrick said he once drove by in the winter, saw fresh footprints in the snow and tried to find who was inside.

A police officer also entered.

But the trespasser had apparently fled.

"It was spooky," he said.

The city paid about $200,000 to bulldoze the buildings in 2006, council minutes show.

Asked about the future of the city-owned land on Mead and railroad projects, Philbrick said: "I don't know where it sits."