Railroad wants residents to pay for driveways across tracks

SWEET HOME, Ore. -- Shirley Trahan has been living in the same home on Santiam Highway in Sweet home for the past 25 years.

In early September, Trahan receieved a letter in the mail stating she has to pay $720 because her driveway runs through the Albany Eastern Railroad Company's railroad tracks.

Trahan says she is one of over 50 homeowners who were sent a letter from Albany and Eastern Railroad Company.

The letter was sent to those with private, commercial or industrial crossings. In the letter, Albany and Eastern Railroad Company says those with this type of crossing must submit a check for a $600 transfer fee and the first year's maintenance fee of $120. Property owners must also complete a permit application and supply additional insurance documentation outlined in the permit application.

In the letter, it states that if property owners "choose to not provide the requested information, documentation, or financial requirements by September 30th we will close the crossing."

"I just can't believe they can do this to us," said Trahan.

The letter doesn't sit well for other homeowners who recieved the same letter. "This is a collective effort between all the neighbors. Everybody on this rail line is outraged," said Mike Martell, who lives a short distance from Trahan on Country Lane.

"They have no moral right to do that," said resident Jonathan Elder.

Albany and Eastern recently purchased the 17-mile stretch of railroad that runs through Sweet Home. The line was laid in 1930 by the Oregon Electric Company before most of the homes were build.

Albany and Eastern Railroad did not want to speak with KVAL News on camera, and referred to a statement on their website.

In the statement, it says "The issue of private railroad crossings is one of great concern to railroad operators and regulators industry-wide. This is because of the significant risk exposure each crossing poses by creating a point where the railroad intersects with the public. Railroad operators are required by their regulators at a state and federal level to document and report and maintain all crossings along their rights-ofway, including the signals, approaches, and surfaces of the crossing. Industry practices for railroads to accomplish this, comply with regulations, and recover a portion of the high cost involved in these activities may include: Requiring property owners to carry specific liability limits on their insurance policies as well as name the railroad as an additional interest on their policies, and to indemnify the railroad in the event of a loss. Obtain a crossing permit from the railroad oeprator. Payment of maintenance fees."

Neighbors who live along Santiam Highway and Country Lane say they won't pay the fees. "We have the right to go to our homes," said Trahan.

Trahan says she asked the railroad company what would happen if she didn't pay the fees. "They said they were gonna barricade my drive through so nobody could come in or out and if they passed, they were gonna arrest me," she said.

Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller says that won't happen. "The Linn County Sheriff's Office and Linn County District Attorney, both of our positions are, we are not going to make criminals out of otherwise honest citizens just for trying to get home," said Mueller.

Mueller says both parties need to work this issue out. "They need to work this out civilly, both through civil process and with civility," he said. "The District Attorney and I want people to keep a calm head."

"We're just here to keep the peace. We're not mediators. We're not civil lawyers. We're not gonna get in the middle of this. And with that being said, we're also not going to arrest people or cite them just trying to get home. There is no intent to commit a crime," said Mueller.

Some homeowners on Country Lane say they have many concerns. The railroad crosses through Country Lane. Unlike Trahan's single property, there are 10 homeowners further down on Country Road. All of the residents recieved letters to pay the fee. "One of the land owners has a permit. They got a permit eight or nine years ago. So how are they gonna stop us?" said Elaine Harcrow, who lives on Country Lane.

Paying a railroad crossing fee isn't unheard of. KVAL News spoke with Shelley Snow from the Oregon Department of Transportation, who isn't associated with this project, but has knowledge with railroad lines in Oregon. "It's one property owner charging another property owner to cross their property. That's legal in Oregon. It just so happens this is an awkward situation," said Snow.

Albany and Eastern Railroad Company says they've offered to make financial arrangements with property owners such as the costs related to obtaining crossing permits and payment of maintenance fees that can be paid over time.