Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Train Quiet Zone for Eugene?

The December meeting of Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute featured a timely presentation by Kerry Werner, civil engineer and project manager for the City of Eugene, on the topic of three interrelated projects associated with the Union Pacific Railway corridor that passes through downtown Eugene. If implemented, the projects are certain to shape the future quality of life, development prospects, and safety of the Whiteaker and downtown areas. Their significance in these regards cannot be overstated. 

The three potential projects are: 
  1. Establishment of a train horn quiet zone in the Whiteaker and downtown neighborhoods;
  2. Relocation of a rail crossing at 8th and Hilyard (to enhance access to the EWEB riverfront site); and 
  3. Accommodations for a new Amtrak siding west of Willamette Street (to allow Amtrak trains to conveniently overnight in Eugene).
Prior to joining the City of Eugene, Kerry worked for ODOT, Douglas County, and Lane County on a variety of large, complex projects whose impact and reach called for substantial public input. The rail-related projects definitely fall within this category. Kerry chose the Willamette Valley Chapter to be the guinea pig for the rollout of his presentation about them. I think our audience rewarded him with confidence he hit the mark in terms of completeness and educational value.

Like most every issue related to the future of Eugene, we cannot analyze anything as impactful as rail travel through the city fabric in isolation. Too many considerations are intertwined. Nothing is simple. Regardless, informing the public and rendering the issues with as much clarity as possible is essential. The decisions the City makes today will shape the future prospects of the areas the rail lines pass through for many years to come, and it’s best if those decisions are made knowledgeably. Kerry framed the challenge well, doing his best to simplify a set of complex challenges. For the further sake of brevity, I’ll focus my blog post on only one of the three projects Kerry described—the City’s consideration of a train horn quiet zone. 

Silencing the Train Horns
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Congress enacted the Train Horn Rule in 2005 to improve safety at railway crossings. Under the rule, locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public at-grade crossings. The horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long blasts, 1 short blast, and an additional long blast following the short one. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. The rule does not stipulate the durations of long and short blasts.

The maximum volume level for the train horn is 110 decibels measured 100 feet in front of the train. The minimum sound level is 96 decibels. Therein lays the issue: 96 to 110 decibels is loud, and with 23 Union Pacific and Amtrak trains traveling through Eugene each day and night, the blare of the horns impacts the quality of life for nearby residents and the potential for desirable developments flanking the rail corridor.

The FRA rule does provide an opportunity for localities nationwide to mitigate the effects of train horn noise by establishing “quiet zones.” In a quiet zone (QZ), trains must cease the routine sounding of their horns when approaching public street at-grade crossings of railroad tracks (however, they may use their horns in emergency situations or to comply with other Federal regulations or operating rules). As Kerry explained, the City of Eugene chose to explore the potential of establishing a quiet zone in response to calls from the public and also because of the City’s own desire to make the neighborhoods along the rail corridor as attractive as possible to vibrant, high-value future developments (the EWEB riverfront site being the most obvious case in point).

There are 15 major public, at-grade rail crossings (and 13 additional minor crossings) within Eugene’s urban growth boundary. Because of their proximity to one another and to the most significantly impacted neighborhoods, Kerry said the City has included ten contiguous crossings in its QZ study (see the map above). According to the FRA rule, any new quiet zone must be a minimum of one-half mile in length, so the incorporation of the ten crossings easily meets this criterion.

In order to create an FRA-sanctioned QZ the City must follow a Quiet Zone Establishment Process. This process includes initiating a feasibility study, collecting data, conducting a Quiet Zone Risk Index Calculation, identifying funding sources, and designing and implementing supplemental safety improvements. Accordingly, the City formed a diagnostic team with the FRA, the railroad companies (which besides Union Pacific and Amtrak also include Portland & Western and the Coos Bay Rail Link), and ODOT’s Rail Division to assess the risk of a train-vehicle collision at each grade crossing within the proposed QZ.

The diagnostic team is collecting vehicle traffic counts at the various crossings and analyzing their physical characteristics, including existing safety devices. In order to secure FRA approval of a new QZ, the City will have to implement engineered, supplemental safety measures (SSMs) at the crossings under consideration to reduce the risk of train-vehicle collisions. Kerry enumerated these specific, acceptable measures:
  • Permanently closing a crossing to vehicle traffic;
  • Providing raised medians on one both sides of the railroad tracks to prevent motorists from driving around lowered crossing gates;
  • Converting two-way streets to one-way travel; and
  • Installing 4-quadrant gates.
A quad-gate crossing

When an SSM is not possible at a particular crossing, the FRA will consider the use of an Alternative Safety Measures (ASM). An ASM may be a SSM with only slight changes from the strict guidelines provided by the FRA. The FRA must approve any ASM before construction begins, whereas the prescribed SSMs do not require prior approval.

The safety modifications (SSMs or ASMs) will impact all forms of transportation: cars, bicycles, and pedestrians at each of the crossings within the QZ. How they also impact access to the properties and neighborhoods on either side of the crossings is a key consideration. The City definitely wishes to minimize the potential for harming their well-being.

All of the agencies involved in the process must agree to the results of the analysis, proposed means of funding, and implementation plans; however, the FRA ultimately has the authority to approve/disapprove the implementation of the quiet zone. The QZ process, from initiation to establishment, can take 12 to 24 months. Notably, there are already over 600 quiet zones across the country, including in Portland and Salem.

The City estimates the cost of implementing the SSMs at the ten crossings within the proposed QZ to be in the millions of dollars. The cost of a single quad-crossing alone ranges between $750,000 and $1 million; add to that $9,000 per year in maintenance costs and it’s clear establishing a QZ will not come cheaply.

Fundamentally, whether or not the City’s continues its steps toward a QZ will be contingent upon weighing the associated benefits and risks. Silencing the train horns would eliminate a source of undue stress and sleep-disturbance, which affects the productivity and mental well-being of many Eugene residents. Silencing the horns would also significantly enhance the attractiveness of the properties alongside the tracks, most notably those within the historic core of the city. Without a QZ, it’s questionable whether developers would be willing to invest in those locations and bring the density and mix of uses the City wants to see. At stake is the potential for increased property tax revenue and employment associated with desirable new developments. On the other hand, it’s difficult to place a value upon a person’s life. If implementing a QZ results in a statistically significant increase in fatalities or injuries, it will certainly not have been worth the cost and would likely necessitate its rescinding.(1)

As someone who grew up near railroad tracks, I used to equate the sounding of train horns with the hustle and bustle of commerce: people on the move and delivering freight, doing the work of a prosperous nation. Their signaling induces nostalgia for a time when the railways served as the essential backbone for the country. Regardless, I fully understand the reasons why silencing them is desirable. I’m interested to see if implementing a quiet zone in Eugene comes to pass and if the hoped-for benefits materialize.

Big thanks to Kerry for providing a thorough description of the pros and cons, and process of implementing a train horn quiet zone in Eugene!

(1)   Kerry said there were 178 fatalities and 697 injuries nationwide last year associated with rail crossing accidents. Eugene has seen 2 pedestrian fatalities and 2 pedestrian injuries since 2010, but none associated with vehicle/train conflicts.  

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