Court Strikes Down Oklahoma Crossing Law

By Eric Berger

A U.S. federal district court has struck down an Oklahoma state law prohibiting railroads from stopping a train on a grade crossing for more than ten minutes, stating the state had exceeded its regulatory authority in violation of the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act.

The decision was issued by U.S. District Judge Charles B. Goodwin on November 30, who previously granted a BNSF Railway request for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law on Oct. 30, 2019.

Passed in 2019, the law carried a $1,000 fine. Exceptions to the 10-minute limit included stops for accidents, derailment, a mechanical failure, a bridge washout or a storm

The first attempts to implement the law came within weeks of going into effect when police officers in the cities of Davis and Edmond and David issued citations to BNSF train crews.

Fort Worth-based BNSF, which operates nearly 1,000-route miles in Oklahoma, immediately filed suit challenging the validity of the law, claiming it violates terms of the ICCTA, which reserves regulatory authority over railroad operations to the federal government in most situations. Federal law trumps state and local law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In defense of the statute, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter argued that the state has a public safety interest in keeping the crossings open, echoing language in the legislation which claimed the law was “immediately necessary for the safety and welfare of the people.” An incident in which a Davis paramedic crossed between stopped railcars to reach a patient in urgent need was cited as proof that blocked crossing can present a threat to public safety.

“Blocked train crossings indisputably have safety implications, and certainly, a state or local government can address grade-level railroad crossing issues in a manner that does not run afoul of federal law,” wrote Goodwin in the decision. “The Court does not conclude that any statute relating to blocked crossings is prohibited. But a statute that tells railroad companies how long they may stop their trains — for whatever ends — intrudes on the territory reserved to the ICCTA.”

This article was posted on: December 15, 2020