Taxpayers stuck with $1.4 million price tag because truckers miss railroad warning signs

- All large trucks are banned from downtown Norcross. Still, in 2017, police pulled over 498 violators, large trucks that roll through town despite at least 30 signs that clearly warn their kind of vehicle is not welcome in downtown Norcross.

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Not welcome... for their own good.

Because of the steep hill leading up to the Holcomb Bridge crossing, heavy trucks can bottom out, unable to move forward or backward. In 2013, a truck carrying luxury used cars was split in two by a southbound train. In 2016, a moving van became the next target, another southbound train colliding with such force it sent boxes of family belongings scattered along the tracks.

Gwinnett County taxpayers will have to pony up $1.4 million largely because truck drivers don't read some important signs.

Those signs warn truckers not to come into downtown Norcross because they'll get stuck on a troubled railroad crossing and wind up in the direct path of some fast-moving freight trains.

It's happened so many times Norcross police set up constant surveillance of the Holcomb Bridge Road crossing, hoping to stop heavy trucks from getting stuck, or getting them off the tracks as fast as they can before the next train arrives.

“I hate to say it," admitted Norcross police sergeant Eric Butynski. "But it's something we expect every day.”

And just this year, January 19, it happened again. This time a northbound train collided with a moving truck from Smart Van Lines. Again, the road was strewn with the belongings from nine families, some living as far away as Washington state.

“It's a nightmare to think about it," complained Smart Van Lines owner Ran Arviv. "Very hard for a family to lose everything they had."

Miraculously, no one has been injured in any of the truck-train crashes. But for a city whose roots are tied to the railroad, the heart of Norcross -- has become No Cross.

How are these truck drivers getting themselves into so much trouble? Truckers tell Norcross police and the FOX 5 I-Team they miss the constant no truck signs because they're focused on something else: their GPS.

They blindly follow directions that unwittingly take the trucks over the most dangerous spot in the city.

"This MapQuest man," one truck driver explained to police after they pulled over his lumber truck. "It told me to come a mile and two tenths. And I came a mile and two tenths and I'm right here."

Like all the others, he got a ticket. It makes no difference whether they ever cross the tracks. But for the ones who do get stuck, they better hope Wayne Epps is working the counter across the street.

“It's just like watching a big screen TV right out our front window," he marveled.

The B&W Automotive sales owner has called Norfolk Southern to stop the train so many times he's got their contact info laminated nearby. Complete with the crossing number. Just this year, 11 days after the most recent accident, another 18-wheeler bottomed out, but Epps warned the railroad in time for crews to push it off the tracks.

“Sometimes it's pretty scary because those things explode," Epps pointed out.

He said he's watched the disaster scenes unfold since the 1970s, government leaders always promising to come up with an answer.

“They'll put a Band-Aid on it and push it aside," he sighed. "And it takes some catastrophe type thing for them to start on it again.”

In fact, after the car carrier accident in 2013 the city of Norcross commissioned a study that suggested raising Holcomb Bridge Road at the crossing so heavy trucks would not bottom out. But the $500,000 price tag was never budgeted. Norcross would go on to suffer three more serious crossing accidents.

The last one in January happened on a busy Friday night, the flying debris damaging 16 cars parked near packed restaurants.

“Every accident they have they're just putting up more signs," complained moving company owner Arviv. "It's not helping. It's not helping.”

Police are frustrated, too. Truckers don't miss the stop signs. So why are they missing the "no trucks" signs?

"It's not that they're not working," objected Sgt. Butynski. "It's just that people aren't reading them."

Government planners are finally getting serious, though, because they say they've finally got the money. Now the project will cost $1.4 million in SPLOST funds. Gwinnett County will pay $1,134,000, Norcross pitching in $266,000 to pretty much do what that 2014 study recommended: level off the slope leading up to the crossing.

It could take another year before work begins, with construction complete by next summer.

"I think at the longest," predicted Gwinnett Country Director of Transportation Alan Chapman. "We may be able to beat that by a little bit."

Still, that could mean 18 more months of relying on 30 signs and a city police department to keep the start of the next disaster from driving straight through town.

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