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BILL WOULD RAISE FINE FOR BLOCKING TRACKS

An Ohio House committee yesterday approved a bill that could increase fines for stopped trains that block intersections at least five minutes.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeffrey Armbruster (R., Elyria), goes to the full House after already having passed the Senate. It would permit local governments to fine railroad companies a flat $1,000 a day for blocking intersections, no matter how many intersections a single train may block or how long they are blocked beyond five minutes.

If the engineer has abandoned the train, the fine would be $5,000.

Current law allows fines of between $100 and $1,000 with the lower fines most often imposed.

The measure won unanimous approval of the Transportation and Public Safety Committee, despite arguments that the fines would not be steep enough to get the railroads' attention.

"A thousand dollars is peanuts for the railroads," state Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) said. "Unfortunately, the bill has gotten watered down that much."

Mr. Armbruster argued that raising fines too much and fostering an adversarial situation with the railroads would invite the companies to challenge Ohio's long-standing law permitting such fines.

A federal court in Michigan last month struck down a state law allowing local fines against moving and stopped trains that block intersections for long periods. The court ruled that regulation of railroads is a federal matter. "If we use this judiciously and work with the railroads, our economy will be better," he said. "Certainly our coffers will be a little better, although we're not using this to build underpasses or overpasses. We can live together, move freight, and just maybe the law won't be challenged in federal court."

Although members of the committee argued that Ohio's 1968 law could stand constitutional muster because it deals only with stopped trains, it never has been challenged. "The problem has been that the railroads have looked at these fines as a cost of doing business and have chosen to continually violate the law, rather than comply, because it's cheaper to do so," state
Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee) said.

The committee agreed to add language to the bill stating that the General Assembly believes this to be a matter of public safety and, therefore, a state matter.

In presenting the court rulings from Michigan and Indiana to the committee, Neal Zimmers, CSX's Ohio vice president, stressed that the railroads are not threatening legal action. "We'd hate to see the battle lines form, if they do," he said.

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