Wrong Side Of The Tracks
By Beth Milligan | July 11, 2019
Every day in Traverse City’s Depot neighborhood, you can find people walking or playing on the train tracks near The Filling Station Microbrewery, Children’s Garden, and Traverse Area District Library. Teens jump off the nearby trestle into the Boardman River, kids run back and forth across the rail lines, and residents walk their dogs and even take graduation and wedding photos on the tracks.
The problem with all that activity? Being on the tracks is considered illegal trespassing in Michigan, and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) – which owns the rail lines – is looking to step up enforcement over concerns about people injuring themselves or damaging the track. MDOT officials and Depot property owners recently met to discuss the issue, with possible solutions ranging from putting up signs and holding community outreach meetings to a "worst-case" option of MDOT putting up fencing around its tracks.
That option – which would cut off The Filling Station patio from its views of Boardman Lake and impact the viewshed of other surrounding businesses and residents – is considered a last-resort measure by both property owners and MDOT. However, MDOT says it’s on the table if other preventative measures don’t work in deterring pedestrian traffic on the tracks.
“I think it’s an end solution,” says MDOT Communications Manager Michael Frezell. “I don’t think it’s the one we want to go with. That’s what we use at a lot of locations throughout the state if there’s a lot of traffic going across the tracks, but it’s not our preferred option. Obviously, we understand the aesthetic aspects of (a fence). If education and enforcement don’t curtail the activity, then that’s what we have to do, but we don’t want to make that decision.”
MDOT officials say their primary concern in the Depot area isn’t necessarily someone getting hit or killed by a train: Great Lakes Central Railroad, which leases the tracks from MDOT for freight service, only comes through once or twice a week and moves at slow speeds through downtown. But “even if there’s no train, people could still get hurt,” says MDOT Railroad Infrastructure Engineer Manager Jim D’Lamater. “They could trip on the rail. They can get caught in the switches or in the tracks. They can hit their head. It’s not a playground or a safe place. Even as a stationary object sitting there, it’s a dangerous place to be.”
Frezell adds that all of the rocks on the tracks and nearby Boardman train trestle – which are often picked up by children or teens and thrown off the rails – act as critical ballast for the tracks. “It helps keep the rails in place, so people throwing rocks affects the infrastructure,” he says.
While The Filling Station has been open since 2012, the issue of customers or their children playing on the tracks or crossing back and forth from the library to the brewery was never raised as a concern until this spring, according to general manager Todd Klepper. MDOT officials acknowledge the issue didn’t come up in the past because they didn’t see the behavior. “We work with a fairly small staff here, and there are 665 miles of train tracks that MDOT owns,” says Frezell. “We don’t get out there on every mile and sit there and police it. If we take note of something, we’ll try to address it.” When MDOT began a work project on its lines in Traverse City earlier this year, workers on the ground started noticing the heavy amount of pedestrian traffic on the tracks around Hull Park and the Depot neighborhood.
“We were doing preliminary design plans and noted there was quite a bit of trespassing, a lot of people walking along the tracks in that area…so we wanted to reach out to the community,” says D’Lamater. “A large part of (addressing) trespassing is educational outreach.”
D’Lamater and property owners met in May to discuss ways to cut down on pedestrian traffic on the tracks. Both Klepper and Traverse Area District Library (TADL) Facilities Manager Bruce Bennett attended the meeting and agree several “innovative” options were discussed for addressing the problem short of constructing a fence. Both believe better-placed and more creative signage would be a good starting point. MDOT, for instance, expressed frustration about people parking along the train tracks near Hull Park and the library. Bennett points out the “private property” signs near the tracks don’t clearly define the right-of-way area where people shouldn’t park. “No one knows where it is,” he says. “The first step from our point of view is just to define the space. It doesn’t have to be a fence, just some signage so people understand where the right-of-way is.”
Klepper also says that rather than putting up “private property” or “no trespassing” signs with indistinct legal language near The Filling Station, signs that are more creative or humorous or share the history of the tracks and why people can’t trespass on them could be installed. He wants to avoid negative interactions with employees having to yell at patrons to stay off the tracks, but says that with proper signage in place, staff could instead use those as teaching tools with customers. “We do already engage with parents about (kids) running down the tracks and throwing rocks…but (further enforcement) is an unfair thing to put on my employees, because there hasn’t been any signage yet that’s gone into effect,” he says.
Bennett and Klepper also say that a willingness from MDOT to consider more official track crossings around the properties could help alleviate trespassing issues in non-approved areas. Klepper notes that kids who want to cross from his patio over to the Children’s Garden or library legally have to go down to Woodmere or Franklin to cross the tracks now – out of their parents’ sight. “Parents want to be able to visually see their kids,” he says. “They’re not going to let them go down there. I’d love an official crossing (near Filling Station).” Bennett says TADL spoke with MDOT in the past about creating an official exit behind the library that would cross the tracks and allow cars to take Hannah Avenue up to its intersection light and turn onto Woodmere there, instead of at the current non-signalized exits on Woodmere. The request was denied – though a well-worn path is clearly visible over the tracks from the back library parking lot to Hannah Avenue, indicating people are traveling that way illegally anyway.
Both MDOT and property owners agree on several key points: They don’t want to see anyone get hurt on the tracks, they’re in concurrence it’s illegal for people to be on the tracks, and they want to be collaborative partners in solving the problem, avoiding a fence at all costs. They plan to continue discussions into this summer and fall, potentially working on a plan to install signage and engage in a public educational campaign in the coming months. With the possibility of passenger rail being reestablished in the future, now is the time to address the issue thoughtfully, the parties agree.
“We all want to be good neighbors,” says Frezell. Klepper agrees. “I think it’s important we get together and figure out a way to get people across in a safe way that accomplishes MDOT’s goals," he says, "and still have people enjoy the Children’s Garden and Hull Park and the ability to go back and forth."