FL: Local Communities Want State to Pay to Muffle Impact of Train Horns

All Aboard Florida's passenger trains will be blasting their horns through the Treasure Coast's rail crossings. And if local taxpayers don't want the additional noise, they'll have to pay.

The new service would "result in essentially a constant unrelenting blowing of their horns throughout the entire length of the city," the Vero Beach City Council stated in a Jan. 14 resolution seeking state money to help alleviate the noise.

Vero Beach is the just the latest noise-wary government, following St. Lucie Village, West Palm Beach and Broward and Palm Beach counties, to seek something the state doesn't even offer — grants to modify crossings into "quiet zones."

Fort Pierce and Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties may consider following suit.

"I don't think it's fair for St. Lucie County taxpayers to pay for this expense when there's no benefit for us," St. Lucie County Commission Chairwoman Frannie Hutchinson said. "They don't have plans for a stop here at this time or in the future."

All Aboard Florida will travel through the Treasure Coast, but won't stop here, on its Miami to Orlando route. Florida East Coast Industries is expected to start service in late 2015 with 16 trains, each making a round trip by daylight. Trains will pass through some 95 crossings here: 27 in Martin County, 26 in St. Lucie and 32 in Indian River.

The horns they'll be blowing would be in addition to the sounds of seven existing freight trains that make round trips through the Treasure Coast every 24 hours.

The New Noise 

The trains are expected to travel at speeds of up to 110 mph between Miami and Cocoa and up to 125 mph west on new track to Orlando International Airport.

Federal regulations require trains to sound their horns in a series of specified bursts about 15 to 20 seconds before they reach a rail crossing.

Cities and counties can turn a crossing into a quiet zone by making the crossings so safe the trains don't need to sound their horns.

Freight trains already blow horns, but only seven round-trip trains — for 14 individual passages — chug through the Treasure Coast during a 24-hour period.

"It's the frequency" that makes All Aboard more of a noise concern, Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor said.

Quieting Down 

While Vero Beach and other governments have asked for aid, they haven't specified how much they will need. Florida Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said she wants to see such numbers — especially since the state doesn't typically give quiet-zone grants.

"I'll be happy to see if there's any funding the state has," she said, "but this is a private project, not a state project."

One feature of a quiet zone would be two additional gate arms. Most crossings already have one set of two gate arms, one on each side of the track. When a train approaches, the arms swing down across the respective side's oncoming traffic lane.

But they don't prevent impatient motorists from driving around the gates, using the ungated lanes to try and cross the track and beat the train.

With four gate arms, rail officials say, each lane on either side of the track is blocked, preventing risky crossings.

Extra gates and other specific features, such as concrete medians dividing the street lanes, would be based on a consultant's review of each crossing and its environment.

The Federal Rail Administration has estimated a city or county's cost at least $30,000 per crossing, depending on the number of crossings and the types of safety features.

But while Florida East Coast Industries has agreed to pay for safety upgrades at crossings, it won't pay toward studying or providing any quiet-zone enhancements.

"We would not participate in this," Rusty Roberts, FEC's vice president of corporate development, told the Vero Beach High Speed Rail Commission last week. "We don't do studies of quiet zones, so we wouldn't have engineers experienced in that regard."

FEC Vice President Bob Ledoux said the rail company doesn't have the authority to make or advise changes to the road.

But in some instances, he said, the work the FEC is already doing to make the track safer for 110-mph trains may also qualify for a quiet-zone designation without further enhancement.

A Local Need? 

Fort Pierce City Commissioner Thomas Perona said he'll recommend his colleagues form a committee similar to Vero Beach's ad hoc committee to keep up with the All Aboard Florida project.

Perona said he didn't like the idea of trains "blasting their horns" through downtown after his city spent so much developing a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly area.

"I don't want to stop All Aboard, but they can't disrupt our historic waterfront just to give the state an economic push," Perona said.

The Indian River County Commission is waiting for All Aboard Florida engineers to finish a survey of the route's crossings to see what they would need.

"North of 45th Street, there are very few residents near the crossings, and we probably don't want to spend the money on quiet zones there," Chairman Peter O'Bryan he said. "But around Fourth Street and Oslo Road, that might be worthwhile."

In Stuart, City Manager Paul Nicoletti said train horns aren't a big nuisance because four of the city's five crossings are in commercial areas.

He said a quiet zone at the Florida Street crossing might be needed, but said he wants to hear first from All Aboard on its engineers' plan to upgrade the crossings.

And in Martin County, Commissioner Anne Scott said she felt all the talk about noise distracts from greater issues, such as making more motorists stop for trains at the crossings.

"They say this is to help tourists get from Miami to Orlando and back, but what about us? Ours is also a tourist economy," she said.

West Palm Beach was the first government to seek a quiet-zone grant. Elliot Cohen, spokesman for that city, said it has estimated a cost of $5 million to turn its 39 FEC crossings into quiet zones. In November, his commissioners were the first to pass a resolution seeking state assistance. That request is under review, according to Fred Wise, head of the state rail office.

"All Aboard Florida will have trains going through the heart of several of our neighborhoods," he said. "And each time a train comes through, without a quiet zone, that train has to blow its horn. We believe the state should help pay for these quiet zones."

Quiet Zones

What they are: A section of rail line, at least a half-mile in length, that includes one or more public street-rail crossings at which locomotives don't sound their horns when approaching the crossings.

The trade-off: Since trains blow horns to alert people on the track, such as impatient motorists, of their approach, silencing the horns demands the local city or county ensure nobody can rush around the gates and try to beat the train. Extra gate arms and medians are employed.

Currently: Quiet zones are not new with All Aboard Florida. The Sunshine State already has 12 quiet zones, mostly in South Florida, on tracks owned by CSX Transportation Inc., in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Hollywood, Lakeland, Lake Worth, Miami, Pembroke Park, West Palm Beach and unincorporated Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Source: Federal Rail Administration

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