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Monday, June 28, 2010

San Diego sets $20.9-million quiet zone project

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The San Diego City Council has approved what will be among the nation's largest quiet zones, entailing $20.9 million in spending to improve downtown railroad crossings and prevent freight trains from blaring their horns at all hours, local media report. Downtown residents, developers and business operators have decried late-night train noise for the past decade, saying it lowers the quality of life, hurts property values and detracts from downtown enhancement efforts.

Managers of downtown hotels told the council that they receive frequent complaints about late-night and early-morning train noise, causing them to lose repeat business and costing them thousands of dollars in customer refunds every year.

The City Council's 6-2 vote June 22 allows the city to move ahead with what proponents say will be among the largest of more than 400 such quiet zones being developed throughout the nation. San Diego's program will impact all 13 of downtown's public rail crossings between Park Boulevard and Laurel Street.

Funding from the Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown redevelopment agency, will cover the estimated $20,940,000 cost to improve rail crossings. Officials said those would include extending crossing arms, adding signs, putting up road barrier, and rerouting streets to prevent vehicles from crossing spots with high train traffic. Officials said the moves are particularly aimed at preventing trains from sounding horns between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Work on the crossing upgrades is expected to begin in August and conclude by November 2011.

Federal law has long required train operators to sound their horns at all crossings passing through developed areas, but those are being relaxed in places where communities have established official quiet zones through safety improvements.

Initial costs approved by the San Diego City Council include awarding a construction contract to West Coast General Corp. for $8.3 million; a contract with RailPros Inc. for $1.2 million for construction-related services; $748,275 to the North County Transit District, also for construction-related services; and $542,259 to MTS, aka the Metropolitan Transit System, for signaling systems.

Once the zone is set up, freight train operators who blow horns at crossings without good reason would be subject to penalties to be enforced by the city based on complaints from residents, though exact penalty levels have not been finalized. If the city in the future decides it no longer wants to pay for ongoing maintenance, or if the potential liability to the city associated with the quiet zone is deemed an unacceptable risk, the city may terminate the zone by notifying the railroads and paying to mothball or remove zone equipment.

CCDC Chairman Fred Maas says an escalation of city liability - in the case of train accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians - is possible but not likely, since all downtown crossings will be made safer than they are now, and they already have a good safety record.

Dozens of downtown residents, merchants and business organization leaders packed the council chambers to speak in favor of the quiet zone.

The City Council also approved required construction and maintenance agreements, setting out rights and obligations of the city and the primary users of local rails, including the Metropolitan Transit System, North County Transit District and freight-rail operator BNSF. The city will be required to pay for all safety improvements related to the zone, and to reimburse railroads annually for the actual cost of inspecting and maintaining zone-related equipment, currently estimated at $60,000 annually. City funds will need to be appropriated yearly.

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