City Manager Mark Latham said the only thing standing in between Highland’s flood plain fix is CSX Railroad.
Currently, the city is in the drafting stage of Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Map Modernization program, which is focusing on updating its flood maps on a national level. These updates show what areas are considered to be at greater risk for flooding.
However, FEMA’s preliminary maps have showed that Highland’s flood plain could potentially be tripled since they were last updated in 1986. This means if the maps are finalized the way they are, numerous people whose properties are located within the new flood plain might have to buy flood insurance, which is often times expensive. But the problem, and the solution, according to Latham, lies under the railroad near the Poplar Street crossing with an undersized box culvert.
In August, the city submitted a plan to the railroad concerning alterations that need to be made to widen the culvert. In a presentation to the City Council, Oates Associates, an engineering firm hired by the city, said that if the culvert is altered, it should bring the flood plain back down to its original 1986 level.
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“We are trying to get them (CSX) to remove restrictions on that north side,” Latham said.
Latham said that the city has had one on-site meeting with railroad representatives on Aug. 28. This was also the time the plan was submitted. But the city cannot touch the culvert until CSX releases property restriction on that area. However, Latham said the city has only received feedback from CSX on one level.
“I’ve got a bill,” Latham said.
To get the railroad to look at the plan, the city had to approve an $11,500 agreement to pay CSX for its engineers to review the plan.
Latham said he has gone through a similar situation with another railroad before, when he was in Arkansas. The solution he found was to get Congress involved. So, he’s doing it again.
Latham said that he reached out to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus and explained the situation.
“He’s going to be talking to the railroad — is what my understanding is — to see if they can speed this up,” Latham said.
Steven Tomaszewski, spokesman for Shimkus, said the congressman’s office has been acting as a kind of liaison between the city and the railroad to try and spur the process along.
“They city has reached out, and we have been working with them and their engineers to try and get some answers from the railroad,” Tomaszewski said.
Rob Doolittle, the assistant vice president of media and communications released the following statement when asked about the situation: “Work continues to progress on the culvert project in Highland. CSX has engaged an outside engineering consultant who has been working cooperatively with the City of Highland and its consulting engineer to advance the project.”
In his statement, Doolittle said the company is “gathering, reviewing and assessing historical documents and maps, modeling and geological surveys are some examples of the work that is involved in a public infrastructure project like this one.”
“CSX strives to be good neighbor in the communities where we operate and we will continue to work diligently to progress these infrastructure enhancements for the City of Highland, its residents and businesses,” his statement said.
Doolittle said that about 10 CSX trains travel through this area per day. Doolittle also said that no two projects are alike, and throughout the company’s 23-state network the railroad has multiple projects underway at any one time.
With the holiday season now over, Latham said he is hoping progress on the culvert project will speed up. Once given a green light by the railroad, Latham said the city will be moving as fast as possible to fix the problem. But the city will need to beat FEMA’s map implementation timeline.
Where do the maps go from here?
The exact time the maps will be finalized is still unknown.
FEMA’s Mitigation Division Outreach Specialist Laurie Smith-Kuypers said the agency estimates that it will be able to begin production on preliminary maps, the next phase in the process, in the next 12 months.
Once in production, it may take up to four months to produce a preliminary map. Shortly after the prelim maps release, FEMA and the state of Illinois will conduct public meetings, as well as meet once again with local officials, according to Smith Kuypers, at which point in time a 90-day statutory appeal period will then be triggered.
During that time ,Smith-Kuypers said communities may submit any other data for review or edits to the maps.
“This is expected to take place in 2019,” Smith-Kuypers said.
Following review and response to any appeals, communities will be notified that they have six months in which to adopt the new flood insurance studies into their flood prevention ordinances before the documents become effective regulatory tools, according to Smoth-Kuypers.
Editor Curt Libbra contributed to this story.