ESCANABA - Wednesday's Joint Governmental Round Table focused on the possibility of unexpected bills for maintenance fees being issued to local units of government across Michigan.
On July 12, the city of Gladstone received an email from Canadian National Railway. "The email is to inform the city that, 'Oops, we forgot to bill you for the last 20-some years to maintain the crossing in Gladstone,'" said Gladstone City Manager Darla Falcon.
The maintenance fees can be traced back to the Railroad Code of 1993. The nearly 20-year-old state law requires railroads maintain all aspects of railroad crossings at their own expense, but charges a set fee to the governing road authority based on the type of crossing installed.
Because the city was unaware that they were being charged for any crossing maintenance, money was not budgeted for the bill.
"The calculations they're using is $760 a year, and they chose six years because they think that's what the statute of limitations is, so the invoice is for $4,560," said Falcon.
Concern over the safety of the Gladstone crossing has led the city to apply for grant money from Canadian National.
"It's just a real coincidence that we're waiting for a $40,000 grant from Canadian National Foundation for safety regarding the same crossing, and, by golly, you send me a bill for $4,500," said Falcon.
According to Falcon, Canadian National has sent out 25 letters so far, but there is a possibility that as many as 86 letters will be sent to townships, cities, and counties.
"Both Escanaba and the county have so many railroad crossing that they need to send out field staff to make sure they bill you the correct amount," Darla warned representatives from both groups.
"This scares the bejeezus out of me," said Rob VanEffen, managing director of the Delta County Road Commission. "I've got about 50 crossings in this county, and if they start hitting me, well, let's just roll the sidewalks up and go home."
Depending on the type of signal at a track, the cost is between $725 and $1,630 per crossing per year. "I don't even want to think about how much money this could cost me," said VanEffen.
Other communities also expressed concern over the letters. "Ultimately this will affect every one of us that has a railroad running through our town," said Escanaba City Manager Jim O'Toole.
Liz Reed, community affairs specialist for Sen. Carl Levin, attended the round table and had been in contact with the Congressional Research Service about the Railroad Code of 1993. "From my reading, and from what the CRS staff said, the responsibility is actually the railroads and not the local government," said Reed, who is still waiting for a clarification from the Federal Highway Administration.
Falcon believes that the legislature needs to focus on how the law affects local units of government. "The current legislature is looking at amending this act," she said. "Whoever is on this committee, they need to ask us for our opinions as well."