Le MARS, Iowa | Each day, more than 6,500 vehicles, including about a half dozen school buses, pass through a rail crossing in downtown Le Mars that one national expert describes as a “death trap.”
The crossing on Iowa Highway 3, locally called Plymouth Street, is marked with warning signs and flashing lights, but doesn't have crossing gates. The nearly 45-degree angle where the tracks cross the street often makes it difficult for westbound motorists to see oncoming locomotives.
“Why aren't there gates at that crossing?’ Bob Comer, a nationally-known expert who has investigated rail crashes for 28 years, asks. “The geometry of Plymouth Street makes the crossing a deathtrap. The skewed angle, the speed of the trains, and that Lally's restaurant building obstructs the view for drivers."
In late December, a westbound semi-truck driver thought the coast was clear at the crossing while the bells and lights were ringing and attempted to drive across the tracks. With her view of the tracks partially blocked by Lally's Eastside Restaurant, 125 Plymouth St. NE, she failed to see the Union Pacific train in time. The southbound engine collided with the trailer, dragging it about 100-feet until the train came to a complete stop.
The 56-year-old driver, Jeannie Harmdierks, escaped with minor injuries. The semi-trailer hauling raw turkey was sliced in half by the train.
Counting that collision, there’s been six train-vehicle accidents at the crossing in about 40 years, according to a Journal check of online records. None of the collisions resulted in a fatality and none involved school buses.
Still, Comer said the most recent accident should be a wakeup call for local and state authorities.
"That lady is extremely lucky," Comer said earlier this year. “What if it had been a school bus? That would get people’s attention."
“There should be more flashing lights and gates ... It's very important for public safety."
Over the years, local leaders have pushed to install gates at the crossing, but have been told it was too low of a priority to qualify for scarce state or federal funding for such rail safety improvements.
In the wake of last year’s accident, city officials are redoubling their efforts to win funding.
"Sight visibility is a major concern and that one has a visibility problem because of the Lally’s building and with the skew of the railroad compared to the highway,” Le Mars City Manager Scott Langel said earlier this year. “Anytime you are not crossing at a perpendicular angle that will always pose an issue because you are having to look over your shoulder and behind you."
Comer, president of Magnolia, Ohio-based Forensic & Electronic Research, points out that federal law mandates that state highway rail crossings that receive federal funds have adequate warning devices if one or more of the following conditions are present:
"When a state is looking to spend federal money to upgrade a crossing they are supposed to go by this law," he said.
The crossing meets the federal threshold on several of those fronts. Highway 3 is one of the most heavily traveled roads in the Plymouth County seat of about 10,000. The tracks, owned by Union Pacific, are also regularly used by BNSF Railway and Canadian National Railway. Combined, around 10 trains per day roll through the city.
The Highway 3 crossing is on the route for some school buses operated by the Le Mars Community School District to transport both its own pupils and students from the crosstown Le Mars Gehlen Catholic School District.
Le Mars public schools superintendent Steve Webner said some buses occasionally cross the tracks downtown at another unguarded intersection on Center Street, a block down from Plymouth.
At all rail crossings, Webner pointed out bus drivers are required by law to activate their four-way flashers, come to a stop, open the bus door and window, look and listen for any approaching trains proceeding through the intersection.
On a typical day, the Le Mars district runs 18 buses carrying a total of about 850 students. Some other routes run across rail tracks, and some of those intersections are equipped with crossing gates.
Scores of school districts in Siouxland operate bus routes that cross tracks without crossing gates, though state officials do not keep data on the total number of crossings.
Comer noted that Iowa and other states must complete federal inventory forms for each rail crossing that asks if the crossing is “regularly used by school buses." In most states, that box is consistently marked "no," he said.
Phil Meraz of the Iowa Department of Transportation Office of Rail Transportation said the box was added to the form more than a year ago and the "no" really means "no data is available."
"I would love to have that data as I am doing safety analysis and that kind of thing," Meraz said. "But when you figure we have 4,300-plus public crossings and another 2,500 private crossings and 336 school districts… (and) the way bus traffic moves around, we have not found a good way to (collect that data) on a mass scale."
Kris Klp, manager for the Iowa DOT Crossing Surface Program, reiterated the difficulty in gathering the data.
"It's always fluid. It is never going to stay the same and there's no way to keep it absolutely completely accurate," Klop said. "Of course, if a new kid joins the district and the bus stops at their house they certainly are not going to get a hold of the DOT to provide that information.”
When ranking crossings eligible for upgrades like crossing gates, state officials rely on a formula that takes into account such factors as vehicle and train traffic, train speeds and effectiveness of the proposed improvements, said Jim Gibson, crossing manager for the DOT’s Rail Transportation Office.
Gibson said the Highway 3 crossing's predicted accident number is below the ratio that gets top priority from the federal government. But under another metric that determines the benefit-cost ratio, the crossing is due for improvements. On a scale of 1 to 5, it scores at 1.1, which just hovers on the side of the public benefit exceeding the public cost for an upgrade, he said.
UP spokesperson Kristen South said safety is the rail carrier's top priority and it is "actively" working with the Iowa DOT to upgrade the Highway 3 crossing. But she said the carrier still has concerns that need to be addressed, such as a center turn lane and private driveway near the intersection.
"Union Pacific is working with IDOT, who is coordinating with the city, to come to an agreement," South said.
Langel said city officials are anxious for a deal, noting the potential danger associated with the crossing increased after UP recently upgraded a section of track.
“Since (Union Pacific) did the improvements on that stretch of rail (putting in) a lot of new ties and rail, they almost doubled the speed that the train goes through town,” the city manager said. “You couple that speed with the visibility problem and I really do think there is an issue there. It really needs to be addressed."
SIOUX CITY | Already down two judges, Leesa McNeil's receipt of another judge's notice of retirement was not welcome news, though she knew District Judge John Ackerman had been considering it.
The announcement that Ackerman will step down in December from the district court bench and take senior status, working 13 weeks a year, will leave its mark on a district already feeling the effects of a hiring freeze ordered by the Iowa Supreme Court in response to budget cuts.
The soon-to-be three vacancies on the District 3 bench add to 13 other vacant judicial system positions in the district. Two other vacancies soon will be created in the district due to retirement, including McNeil's in January.
"There is a limit to what you can do with the resources you have. We're reaching a breaking point," said McNeil, who will be retiring after 32 years as the 3rd District Court Administrator. Her position will be left open until the hiring freeze is lifted or modified.
The Supreme Court enacted the freeze, along with a one-day unpaid furlough for court workers, earlier this year to clear budget space after the Legislature, facing a $117 million state budget shortfall, passed a $3 million budget reduction to the state's judicial branch for the final four months of the fiscal year. When the Legislature appropriated $175 million to the judicial branch for Fiscal Year 2018, the same level as the previous fiscal year after the budget reduction, the high court extended the hiring freeze to the current fiscal year, which ends May 31.
Fortunately, the decree included a provision that any judicial district won't be left with more than one judicial vacancy. It's good news for the 3B subdistrict, which includes Woodbury, Sioux, Plymouth, Ida, Monona and Crawford counties. District Judge Edward Jacobson retired earlier this month, and with Ackerman stepping down from full-time duty in December, the subdistrict would have been short two judges of its maximum allotment of eight.
McNeil said the application and nomination process to seek Jacobson's replacement will begin soon. It's about a four-month process.
"We are hopeful we will have a person in a chair and ready to work by mid January," McNeil said.
When it comes to scheduling, McNeil said she's essentially two judges short now because long-term cases can't be assigned to Ackerman.
"Some things are having to get pushed out a little farther than we would like," McNeil said.
She said trials are getting "pushed back and bunched up" as time-sensitive matters such as mental health commitments, family custody cases, juvenile cases and criminal case deadlines take priority.
The 3A subdistrict, which includes Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, Lyon, Kossuth, O'Brien, Osceola and Palo Alto counties, also is operating short one judge from its maximum allocation of five after District Judge Patrick Carr retired in July. That vacancy, too, has led to challenges in scheduling court hearings.
"We've had to make schedule practice adjustments," McNeil said. "We are trying to limit the impacts to litigants."
DES MOINES | Rural Iowa shifted its political direction in 2016 and caught Democrats off guard.
The conversation of how to earn back those votes is dominating the discussion among Democrats these days.
It was the focus by speakers at a recent fundraiser held by Democrats from Polk County, which is dominated by the city of Des Moines and its suburbs, as they talked about the party’s need to reach voters outside the state’s biggest cities.
Last week in Des Moines, Democrats gathered again to discuss the need to regain the trust of rural voters at an event organized by a new national advocacy group formed for the sole purpose of having that conversation.
“We have to make our argument with courage, and we have to make it everywhere,” said Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Kander was one of the speakers at the event in Des Moines hosted by New Democracy, an advocacy group formed to help expand Democrats’ appeal in the Midwest, the region that Democrats’ losses took the biggest hit in the 2016 elections. Formerly blue states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania all flipped to Republicans in the presidential election.
That swing was magnified in Iowa, a state that went twice for Democrat Barack Obama but in 2016 went for Republican Donald Trump by almost 10 percentage points.
From the 2012 to 2016 elections, the state swung nearly 15 points from the Democratic candidate to the Republican.
Obama won 38 counties in 2012; 32 of those went for Trump in 2016.
Most of those 32 counties that swung away from Democrats were in rural areas, particularly in eastern Iowa.
“(The 2016 election) brought home a reality that we were dimly aware of, but were not focused on,” said Will Marshall, who formed New Democracy. “We have to expand the party and we have to expand in all directions, reaching beyond our core partisans and engaging voters who are not now Democrats or are not now voting for us.”
Marshall added, “We have to go everywhere and build real, winning coalitions and majorities again.”
So how do Democrats earn the support of rural voters?
“Before the Democrats can win over the folks you mention, they have to get these folks to be willing to listen to them,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University and author of a book on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. “You don’t do that with a list of policy proposals; you do that by presenting an overarching vision for the country that respects them and includes them.”
“Calling them deplorables or focusing on an identity politics that speaks to every group that’s not them will not accomplish that,” Goldford said.
That message seems to be getting through to Democrats.
“What happened in Iowa (in 2016) unfortunately and tragically has happened all over the United States. Because our party, for whatever reason, stopped showing up and stopped competing effectively in rural areas,” said Tom Vilsack, the former two-term Iowa governor and U.S. ag secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration. “We stopped understanding the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations, and yes the frustration and anger of those who live, work and raise their families in rural areas. We forgot how to talk to folks, and when we did we often talked down.”
How Democrats talk to rural voters is a problem, said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. The website for the polling firm ALG Research, in which Anzalone is a partner, believes he has helped beat more incumbent Republicans and take back more Republican seats than any other polling firm in the nation.
Anzalone said Democrats can get trapped by holding hard-core stances on issues like immigration, and by holding contempt for voters who don’t agree 100 percent with their stance on the issue.
“The problem is is that ... we, generally, as Democrats, if they have those feelings, we kind of treat them like idiots. We condescend, literally treat them like idiots in elections,” Anzalone said. “And I think that this is a really big problem that we have to figure out, to understand that their values and their concerns aren’t ones that we can just dismiss, in small towns or big towns. Because a lot of what I’m talking about is actually in suburbia, in a place like West Des Moines.”
Anzalone said, when that happens, as Goldford alluded to, voters will tune out Democrats regardless of whether they are talking about the right issues.
Many Democrats have said they must shift their message in 2018 and beyond to focus on jobs and the economy. But, Anzalone said, none of that will matter unless Democrats first learn how to talk to voters on issues with which they may not perfectly align with Democrats.
“We want to talk about believing that there is a magic fairy dust on our economic message,” Anzalone said.
Democrats can do that simply by being genuine, multiple leaders say.
Kander said, while there is a debate within the party about which direction it should go ideologically -- more to the left or more to the center -- he feels it’s more important for Democrats to be genuine and honest, and that voters will respond better to that regardless of the candidate’s ideology.
Kansas City mayor Sly James said it’s about listening, not pandering.
“It’s not about putting on overalls, sitting on a tractor and acting like you know what it’s about,” James said. “That ain’t what it’s about. It’s about listening to them.”
If Democrats do that -- simply listen -- they may begin to win back those rural voters they have lost, said Matt McCoy, an Iowa state senator from Des Moines.
“Our future is not how we talk to rural Iowa,” McCoy said, “but rather how we listen.”