A Streetcar (Crossing) Named Bizarre

That audible sigh of relief you just heard likely came from Tampa Electric Co. officials. If so, it’s probably the prospect that TECO and its transmission totem poles could have real competition for unflattering publicity, corporate ham-handedness and headlines that won’t go away. CSX Transportation is on the case.

Expect to see, hear and infer a lot more about the simmering discord — and increasing dislike — between CSX and city officials responsible for Tampa’s successful, new trolley line. Mayor Pam Iorio and City Attorney Fred Karl are earning their stripes on this one. Now they understand what Dick Greco and Ron Rotella went through.

It’s all about where the trolley crosses CXS tracks just south of Fifth Avenue near Ybor City. Never mind that hundreds of cars, trucks, buses and cyclists cross these tracks daily without colliding with a train.

It’s all about how the conductor on the trolley communicates with the CSX flagman in his trailer to help make sure that trolleys and trains are not intersecting. Literally.

It’s also all about some uncertainty back in July. That’s when safety concerns were raised resulting from apparent conductor-flagman miscommunication.

While incidents didn’t become accidents, they sent an alarm that somebody needed to be, well, watching out for trains.

But, no, it wasn’t the flagman’s job; CSX doesn’t want any part of such liability. As a result, common sense is derailed.

In a division of labor that would make any Teamster drool, the flagman’s responsibility is to verify that the approaching trolley conductor actually sees the signal light, which is eminently visible. He then logs in the time the trolley passes. He then returns to his crossword puzzle. He doesn’t need a flag.

It’s good, old-fashioned, feather-bedding work if you can get it, and that’s why it goes to high-senority, maximum-wage CSX employees.

But if not a flag-less flagman, then who is actually going to look out for trains?

As it turns out, a streetcar field supervisor has recently been posted near the tracks. He climbs aboard all approaching trolleys. The supervisor and the conductor jointly radio the nearby flagman and then they all decree: “Yes, there are no trains coming.” Then the trolley crosses the tracks on the yellow caution signal. On the other side of the tracks, the supervisor gets off and awaits the next streetcar.

At a contracted price of $37.50 an hour, the position costs more than $2,000 a week — or more than $100,000 a year. And keep in mind that there are typically only three or four trains per day; some of them at hours when the trolley isn’t running.

Some recent historical perspective.

CSX has all the leverage; it’s their tracks.

Last year, it initially demanded a $500 million liability insurance policy to permit streetcars to cross those tracks. The $1 million premium, however, seemed prohibitive to the city. The parties then negotiated a two-year agreement, whereby the city would give CSX upwards of $300,000 a year, which would include paying for the flag-less flagman. The city also provided the air-conditioned trailer, installed signals and paid for the tracks’ interlocking mechanism.

Until July, it appeared that the city had at least bought itself some time.

Now there have been threats to shut down the trolley crossing and render the two-year agreement null and void. And CSX is still holding out for that $500 million insurance policy. There have been some frayed tempers — and some blinking. Negotiations continue, and Karl is still scrambling. Steep insurance premiums would likely mean invading the trolley’s endowment fund.

As one insider put it, “The streetcar could do 500,000 riders this year. The business community has embraced it; tourists love it; groups book it; and it’s talked about around the country. The CSX people are sharp, but they’re also arrogant and ruthless. They’re bullies.”

And they’re calling the shots.

And you haven’t heard the end of it.

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