By Brandi Makuski
Portage Co. Circuit Court Judge John V. Finn says the county sheriff’s office will not be allowed to enforce a county ordinance regulating railroad traffic.
Finn dismissed the county’s case against Canadian National with prejudice on June 25, when the county had attempted to recover about $5,000 in fines from 29 citations written against the railroad for blocking roadways.
Following a similar ruling in Wood County for 32 citations written against the railroad there, Finn ruled a federal statute trumped the county ordinance prohibiting trains from blocking the roadway for longer than 10 minutes.
Local law enforcement was less than pleased with the ruling.
“Our hands are effectively tied,” said Portage County Sheriff Mike Lukas. “It’s a completely frustrating situation when people need our help and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Train traffic has increased over the past several years and is only expected to grow in the future. In 2014, the sheriff’s office received 205 complaints of trains blocking the crossings, and 25 citations were issued. But so far, complaints in 2015 are on track to beat those numbers, with 154 complaints received and 35 citations issues in the first half of the year.
In a news release from the sheriff’s office, Chief Deputy Dan Kontos said deputies will continue to document complaints, but deputies will no longer be dispatched, nor will any enforcement action be taken.
Callers will instead be referred directly to Canadian National to register their complaints at (800) 465-9239. Residents with emergency situations should call 911 as normal.
Kontos said the judge’s ruling wasn’t a big surprise.
“Judge Finn found, as we figured he would, that the enforcement of the county ordinance is preempted by federal law,” Kontos said.
The Portage and Wood Co. rulings are reinforced by an informal opinion issued by the Wisconsin Attorney General in 2008, which states that state, county and municipal law enforcement can no longer take enforcement action for trains that block vehicle crossings in their jurisdiction.
A phone call to Canadian National was not immediately returned.