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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Seeking silent nights

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When Lisa Burley moved into her new southeast Bend, Ore., home in July, she thought she'd found a perfect, quiet spot to spend her retirement, local newspapers report. Then she heard the blast of a train horn, warning drivers and passers-by that the train was approaching a rail crossing. Then she heard another one, and another - usually three or four every night.

Burley said the noise keeps her and her neighbors up at night, and now, she's asked the city to do something about it. Last week, she went to the Bend City Council to ask councilors to push to make Bend a federally recognized "quiet zone" - a place where trains are not required to sound their horns at road crossings.


Some council members said they're interested in the idea and want city staff to study it further. But because changing the rules for trains in Bend means the city would have to complete safety studies and install a variety of improvements, officials say the process of quieting the train horns could take some time - and could cost more than $1 million.


Several decades ago, Bend prohibited the sounding of train whistles or horns, said City Recorder Patty Stell. But in 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration approved a new rule that requires all trains to blast their horns for 15 to 20 seconds before passing through crossings that do not involve an overpass or underpass. Under the new rule, however, cities could apply for a quiet zone exemption - as long as they were willing to pay for safety studies, install a variety of improvements at crossings and submit to regular federal reviews. So far, just four Oregon cities - Columbia City, Pendleton, The Dalles and Westfir - have received exemptions.


Christine Adams, a regional grade crossing manager for the Federal Railroad Administration, said communities that have problems with the noise of trains and want to get an exemption have several options.


"They usually have a team of experts that go and look at the crossings, (and) come up with some (solutions)," she said. "The major thing to make it as safe as when the horns are blowing. ... You bring the risk down depending on what you decide to do, whether its quadrant gates or median strips or actual closures. One of the treatments is changing to a one-way street and putting up two gates."


The rules about sounding train horns at crossings is meant to keep people safe, but Adams said she believes quiet zones don't create any new problems.

Stell said she's been fielding calls about train noise in Bend for years. In 2007, Transportation Engineering Manager Nick Arnis was asked to look into the quiet zone issue. At that time, Arnis did some research and found that Bend has nine railroad crossings that would require improvements if the city wanted to ban train horns. In a memo drafted for the city manager and public works director, Arnis wrote that two safety options would be feasible for Bend: a system of gates blocking each direction of traffic, or gates with medians that would prevent drivers from going around them.

Arnis estimated that the first option would cost between $150,000 to $200,000 for each crossing, or a total of $1.35 million to $1.8 million. The second option's estimated cost was $35,000 per crossing or about $315,000 for the whole project.

Other alternatives open to cities include installing horns at intersections, which will sound when a train is approaching, rather than the louder sound of a horn from a moving train.

If the city decides to move forward on the quiet zone idea, it will have to work with officials from the BNSF, which runs about six to seven trains per day through Bend, according to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

Stell said she's going to continue to research the issue and then bring back the information to the council at a future meeting.


Burley said she's going to keep pushing for a quiet zone because she sees the noise as both a quality of life and economic issue for the city and its residents. She said the city needs to invest in its southern areas to increase property values and tax revenues, and keeping trains quiet could be a big step forward.

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