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Friday, September 18, 2009

Billings, Mont., businesses, residents hail new quiet zone

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Lynda Frost, a spokeswoman for Montana Rail Link, said trains traveling through downtown Billings, Mont., were supposed to stop sounding their horns Sept. 18, one minute after midnight, according to The Gazette. And those are some big horns, emitting blasts of 96 to 110 decibels, as per federal regulations. A subway train, at a distance of 200 feet, registers at about 95 decibels, while 110 decibels is comparable to a power saw three feet away.

The quiet zone was pushed for six years by the Downtown Billings Partnership and ultimately involved the city of Billings, the state Department of Transportation, MRL, BNSF and the Federal Railroad Administration.

For the quiet zone to pass muster with the railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration, railroad crossings at north 27th, 28th and 29th streets had to be substantially upgraded. As part of the $1.47-million project, 24 vehicular and pedestrian gate arms, as well as new fencing and electronic equipment, were installed at the three intersections.

The improvements make it impossible for cars to weave through the gates anymore, and chain-link "pedestrian mazes" virtually force people to look up and down the tracks before crossing. The electronic equipment included underground sensors that control the arms and synchronize train movements with traffic lights on Montana Avenue.

Some of the last of the funds generated by the downtown tax increment district were used to pay for the project.

Greg Krueger, development director for the Downtown Billings Partnership, said the quiet zone is likely to spur new projects because old warehouses along the tracks are often ideal for residential and restaurant development. Once the general economy starts to improve, he expects to see a lot of activity near the tracks.

In Fargo, N.D., a much larger quiet zone went into effect a few years ago, with noticeable results in terms of safety and economic development, said David Anderson, president of the Downtown Community Partnership there. Anderson said Fargo and its sister city, Moorhead, Minn., spent $8 million to close or upgrade more than 20 railroad crossings in an urban area that sees as many as 85 trains a day.

Even with the change, engineers will have the discretion to blow their horns in an emergency, when the warning devices aren't working or when a switch engine is backing up. But, in the most common situation, when the trains are backing up, the engineers will only use three short blasts, as opposed to the two longs-one short-one long previously used by trains in transit, MRL's Frost said. And, while the trains won't use their horns passing through the downtown, they will still sound them at the crossing on Moore Lane, west of downtown.

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