Highland News Leader

Railroad gets on board with plan to fix Highland flood map problems

A box culvert underneath the CSX Railroad tracks near the Poplar Street train crossing in Highland. The culvert needs to be removed and replaced to help lower the new Special Flood Hazard Area outlined by the Federal Emergency Management agency.
A box culvert underneath the CSX Railroad tracks near the Poplar Street train crossing in Highland. The culvert needs to be removed and replaced to help lower the new Special Flood Hazard Area outlined by the Federal Emergency Management agency. mbraa@bnd.com

The city of Highland could be one step closer to helping select citizens avoid paying thousands of dollars in flood insurance.

CSX Railroad has agreed to let the city remove and replace a culvert under its tracks near the crossing on Poplar Street, City Manager Mark Latham said.

“That’s good news,” Latham said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently drafting stage for its flood maps for Highland. FEMA periodically updates its flood maps to take into account new developments, changes in topography, etc., and how those changes may alter areas to be at a greater risk for flooding.

Preliminary map updates for Highland show the Special Flood Hazard Area might potentially be tripled, compared to when the maps were last updated in 1986.

City leaders have said the maps would have terrible impact on the community if that were to happen. Property owners with buildings in the new floodplain would be required to purchase flood insurance at increased rates. Also, new structures built within those area would be subject to increased standards that would add large costs to and might discourage future development.

About a year ago, Oates Associates Inc., a Collinsville engineering firm, was commissioned to take a look at FEMA’s calculations and analyze what caused the new Special Flood Hazard Area to increase. In July, the engineers came back with a solution which focused on the culvert.

The firm noticed the Lindenthal Creek area had vastly increased, especially north of the CSX train crossing on Poplar Street near U.S. 40, which is the point where the culvert is under the railroad.

After looking at the culvert, the engineers saw the original 100-year-old opening was altered. Latham said the culvert was extended on its upstream section. The addition caused volume of water that can pass through the hole to almost be cut in half, reducing the flow of water downstream. The engineers said they believed this is what caused the flood plain raise by up to six or seven feet, affecting 52 more properties and 124 additional acres.

While city officials knew how to fix the problem, nothing could be done without the railroad’s permission.

On the engineers’ recommendation, the city brought some options to the railroad for consideration in August. Of those options, CSX chose to remove the restricted extension of the culvert and replace it with one that is the same size as the original opening.

The plan chosen by CSX Railroad to fix a culvert underneath its tracks near the train crossing on Poplar Street in Highland. This was designed by Oates Associates, Inc. an engineering firm the city hired to assess the city’s flood risk as compared with the current assessment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Once construction is finished, City Manager Mark Latham said the city’s Special Flood Hazard Area should be lowered back to its original height. Provided by Oates Associates, Inc.

Latham said that the total cost of the project should be around $500,000. This cost includes, engineering to design the culvert, construction and estimates for CSX inspection. Latham also said this was the cheapest route for the city to handle the problem.

“CSX chose the second option over the other proposals, as it allows us to keep our road bed intact for future use,” said a CSX spokesperson who did not wish to be identified further.

What comes next?

Latham said the next step for the city will be to design the culvert.

The railroad spokesperson said CSX will remain engaged with all parties to see the project through to completion.

“As we do across our 23-state network, CSX strives to work cooperatively on public projects with local municipalities, and each project is unique,” she said.

CSX said this will entail working with the city of Highland and its consultants to confirm plan details, including right-of-way access, property limits and pipe size.

“As with all infrastructure projects, there will be continued dialogue as the plan review progresses,” the spokesperson said.

Once the design is finished, Latham said it will need to be approved by the City Council, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the railroad.

However, despite the railroad’s cooperation, city officials are still worried about getting the project done in time.

The exact time the FEMA maps will be finalized is still unknown. FEMA’s Mitigation Division Outreach Specialist Laurie Smith-Kuypers said recently that the final steps of the mapping process are expected to take place some time late in 2019.

In the interest of time, Latham reached out to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, looking for some help. Latham said he will meet with Shimkus and two representatives from CSX on Feb. 28 in Washington, D.C.

“We’re just trying to get an in-person meeting, so everybody can be on the same page,” said Steven Tomaszewski, spokesman for Shimkus.

Tomaszewski said that, after the meeting, Shimkus’s office will continue to be involved in the project.

“I would imagine so just to keep making sure things continue to move forward,” Tomaszewski said.

At the meeting, Latham said there will be two focuses.

“I’m going to ask them about how to accelerate this,” Latham said.

The other focus will be funding.

Latham said he will also ask the railroad to fund part of the project. Latham said if the exact cause of the shrinking culvert is unknown, then he knows the city didn’t do it. But if it was the railroad’s doing, Latham said they should help the city fix the problem.

“I’m not afraid to ask,” Latham said.

The railroad spokesperson said: “CSX does not intend to fund this project.”

Editor’s Note: This story corrects a error that appeared in print as to what option the railroad chose to fix the flood plain issues brought on by the culvert.

Megan Braa: 618-654-2366, ext 23, @MeganBraa_