FAIRFIELD — Motorist fears of flat tires and broken shock absorbers from driving over Fairfield’s railroad crossings may finally be coming to an end.

Beginning next week, the railroad’s parent company, Pam Am Railways, will begin repairing and replacing three track crossings and will close two other crossings, one at Elm Street and one at Willow Street.

The closings mean Elm and Willow streets will be split into dead end streets ending at the crossing, Town Manager Josh Reny said Tuesday.

“Since I started as town manager three and a-half years ago I’d say that of all the complaints I get — beside property taxes — the issues associated with railroad crossings rank pretty high up there,” Reny said. “Replacing a mile worth of track and all of the crossings is a big deal, not only for safety but for automobiles passing over — we don’t want to see people popping tires and tail pipes falling off of cars.”

Reny said the town began meeting with railway officials and with representatives from the state Department of Transportation two years ago to develop a solution to the problem, which had been getting worse by the year.

The fix includes replacing the rail itself, placing panels under the road, then paving the road. The new panels under the road at the crossings should last for about 30 years and the pavement on top of it should last a decade or more. Reny said a railroad train car will be run over each section of track where repairs are made to compact the rails before paving is done.

The cost will be shared between Pan Am Railways and the Maine Department of Transportation using federal safety program money.

“This is the current solution and hopefully 30 years from now the railroad will have a minimum standard — an expectation of the quality level of the crossings it’s going to keep,” Reny said. “I personally think there is going to be growth in that industry over the next 30 years.”

Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s rail program, said in November the total cost to renovate five crossings would be roughly $900,000, a project which won the backing of a federal road safety program. The safety program allocates money to the states specifically for eliminating hazards at railroad grade crossing on public highways, according to a memo to the Fairfield Town Council from Reny.

One of the best ways to eliminate crossing hazards, Reny said, is to reduce the number of grade crossings.

“The way that the feds see it is that at every grade crossing there is potential risk there because both automobiles and trains are crossing over at the same grade, so they like the idea of eliminating those crossings because statistically it would improve safety,” Reny said.

Under the deal, the Fairfield crossings at Elm Street and Willow streets will permanently be closed to traffic and landscaped by the transportation department to form the dead ends. The agreement for Pan Am Railways to receive the federal safety money called for rebuilding two railroad crossings for each crossing that is closed.

A public hearing was held in June 2013 for people living on or interested in the future of Elm and Willow streets and the comments were favorable for closing the two streets, Reny said. He said the lower end of Elm Street, where it meets Main Street by the bridge abutment, will have to be renamed according to E-911 guidelines.

“I know that the minimum standard is that the crossings be passable to automobiles, but I think that the public’s expectation is something a little bit better than passable,” Reny said. “Once all of that work is done, it should satisfy all of those issues for some time in the future.”

With the Summit Street and Burrill Street crossings already completed, the remainder of the project will begin Tuesday at the crossing on Western Avenue, followed by the crossing at U.S. Route 201 (outer Main Street), Elm Street, Willow Street and Lawrence Avenue, at a time yet to be determined.

“The idea was that, in addition to rebuilding these crossings, they were going to replace the railroad ties and rail and improve the condition of the tracks throughout the whole downtown area,” Reny said. “Hopefully the repairs are going to mean we have quality crossings for years into the future. We just hope that 30 years from now that there aren’t any other crossings we’ll have to close.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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