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For Colorado's Rail Towns Muffling Train Horns Ain't Easy

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Grace Hood
/
KUNC
A BNSF train lumbers southbound on Mason Street in downtown Fort Collins, Colo.

Since 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration has required conductors to sound their horns for at least 15 seconds before all public rail crossings. Since then accidents and deaths have decreased 20 percent nationwide.

But with progress comes complaints — lots of them for the city of Fort Collins.

"It's word of mouth, it's emails, it's calls, it's being out here when there's a train and watching everyone covering their ears," said Joe Olson, a Fort Collins traffic engineer.

Olson's working on a plan to silence train horns by creating a federally regulated quiet zone. It's a process that will take years to complete. On Nov. 18, city council members approved a plan to apply for a waiver from certain federal quiet zone requirements. That process will take 90 days and won't be initiated until after Jan. 1, 2015.

"It's a complicated process," he said. "We won't know what we have to do to implement the quiet zone until we see how they rule on the waiver."

"They could have expected horns once in a while, they just didn't expect them nightly and throughout the night."

Across the country, communities are struggling to manage train horn noise through quiet zones—spending millions and taking years to complete the process. So why's it so difficult?

Douglas County: A Case Study

In Douglas County, creating a quiet zone from Castle Pines to Sedalia took five years, and was just finalized as of November.

While the project was initiated in 2009, Douglas County Public Works Project Manager Sean Owens said it became more urgent when Union Pacific trains started blowing horns at public and private road crossings.

"People say, well they bought a house next to railroad tracks, they should have expected horns," he said. "They could have expected horns once in a while, they just didn't expect them nightly and throughout the night."

Douglas County's quiet zone includes seven crossings total: two public, five private.

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Credit Grace Hood / KUNC

Compared to other cities that pour millions into establishing quiet zones, Douglas County had it easy. It split costs with a metropolitan planning district, spending $170,000. In one instance, the county incorporated a wayside horn, technology that blasts the sound of a train horn through a speaker.

Having a long drawn-out process takes a toll, mostly in the form of souring public opinion. That had a personal effect on Owens' opinion about trains. Listening to horns used to be something he considered a quaint characteristic of country life.

As time crept by, he began to equate train horns at night with the number of complaints he'd get the next day.

"You start hearing them while you sleep because you know how many emails or phones calls you're going to get the next day of 'Why isn't it done yet.'"

Windsor And Greeley

Across Northern Colorado, plans for quiet zones are moving along as slowly as the trains that clatter through the towns. In Windsor, the 13-intersection quiet zone plan won a $3.3 million federal grant in September 2013, with plans to finish the project in early 2016.

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Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Union Pacific Tracks in east Greeley, Colo.

Meantime, in Greeley, development is happening at a slower pace. Although a quiet zone plan was drafted up as early as 2010, Public Works Director Joel Hemesath said the city is still working through a complicated financial jigsaw puzzle.

"It costs Greeley about $4 million to do our 8 crossings," he said.

Greeley has two parallel sets of tracks near 4th Avenue on the east end of town. Right now just one is active. But that may change. Great Western Railway filed an application Nov. 10 that indicates plans to start using its tracks along the north end of town. They had been out of use due to infrastructure damage.

"We deal with on the east side and now all of the sudden we have a problem on the north side that we actually hadn't been considering because it's been inactive for a number of years," said Hemesath.

FRA Indicates Flexibility

The difficult, frustrating process of setting up quiet zones is not lost on federal leaders. On Dec. 2, 2013 U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet met with Northern Colorado leaders to discuss train horn noise. After some pressure from Senators Bennet and Udall, the FRA has indicated flexibility on the train horn rule.

That's encouraging for the city of Fort Collins.

Traffic Engineer Joe Olson said the city is applying for a waiver from certain quiet zone requirements because of the unique circumstances of Fort Collins' downtown corridor.

The typical quiet zone rules stipulate certain treatments for each intersection that typically include gates and flashing lights. The city's already spent about $4 million in upgrades along Mason Street in 2012 when it created a bus rapid-transit corridor. But Olson said the seven intersections in his proposed quiet zone already have flashing lights. Gates aren't needed.

"We actually have traffic signals at those locations which are a redundant form of control," he said.

For its part, BNSF has issued concerns with the waiver, mainly with whether the quiet zone treatments actually keep pedestrians and drivers safe.

Whether or not those concerns will delay the quiet zone waiver and application remain to be seen. Ultimately Olson said establishing a quiet zone takes time because lives and safety are at risk.

"We're not interested in making the horns go off at the expense of safety, we want to have both. And we feel like we can do that," he said.

Train Shots? Yes, It's a Fort Collins Thing

http://youtu.be/OqfBxnTAGeI

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