Aug. 25--With the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train expected to roll into San Rafael in 2016, city officials are holding meetings to discuss whether residents want to petition for quiet zones.
Quiet zones are vehicle or pedestrian crossings where a train operator is not required to blow the train horn unless there is a hazard on the tracks or the locomotive is leaving a station. These zones can include a single crossing or dozens of crossings and can be in effect for a full 24-hour day or for shorter periods, such as overnight.
San Rafael has scheduled three meetings, with the first Wednesday night, to educate the community about quiet zones and gather residents' opinions on whether the city should implement them. Mayor Gary Phillips and Councilwoman Maribeth Bushey, who comprise the city's SMART subcommittee, will oversee the sessions. The same information about the risks and benefits will be presented at each meeting.
The meeting on Wednesday is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. at San Rafael Community Center at 618 B St. The other meetings are set for 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 18 at City Hall, 1400 Fifth Ave., and 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Terra Linda Community Center, 670 Del Ganado Road.
City Manager Nancy Mackle said the city first officially expressed an interest in quiet zones to SMART in August 2009. She said once the upcoming public meetings are held, the City Council will vote on the issue.
"Many residential neighborhoods have expressed interest in this designation so we're tracking it carefully," Mackle said. "The council will need to consider neighborhood noise concerns, safety concerns, additional liability and whatever other things come up through this community process."
Train horns are typically sounded one-quarter mile before a crossing and until the train reaches the crossing. Even with a quiet zone in place, the electronic bells that sound at crossings as the railroad arms are lowered will continue to emit noise. In order to have quiet zones the city would have to install extra safety measures, such as crossing gates on each side of an intersection and lane medians that prohibit people from driving around the gates.
Janet Shirley, of San Rafael Meadows, said quiet zones are needed to keep people from being constantly inundated by the noise of the train horns sounding at each of the 10 public crossings in San Rafael included as part of the first phase of the project, which will run from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.
"The train horn sound is 96 to 110 decibels, which is very loud. Louder than a jackhammer," Shirley said. "There's going to be severe noise impact."
She said the residents of Vista Marin, San Rafael Gables, Contempo Marin, San Rafael Meadows, Los Ranchitos, Redwood Village and Lincoln Hill will be subjected to the sound of four trains passing through the city each hour during peak hours.
In an effort to educate the community, Shirley has borrowed a train horn from a friend that sounds at 100 decibels and runs off a car battery. She and a group of neighbors are taking the horn to each crossing in San Rafael and demonstrating the noise.
"We felt without the physical presence of a train horn, everything is abstract for most people," Shirley said. "People generally don't get it unless they hear it and experience the level of noise pollution."
She said residents are generally shocked by the sound.
"When they hear those horns, they run out of their houses and ask what the heck is going on," Shirley said. "We're circulating a petition to ask the city for a quiet zone and several hundred people have already signed it."
There are risks associated with establishing quiet zones, and the Union Pacific Railroad has gone on record against them, stating "quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public." There are concerns motorists and pedestrians could be accidentally hit because they entered the tracks expecting to hear an approaching train's horn.
San Rafael-based nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, which pairs visually impaired people with trained guide dogs, has no problem with the city establishing quiet zones as long as additional safety measures are installed.
"The signs, flashing lights, audible sounds, and tactile information provided as a part of a truly accessible intersection provide more useful information with regards to safety than the horn of the train would provide," said Kristin Lucas, director of training at Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Chris Benninger, chief executive of Guide Dogs for the Blind, agreed. She said the nonprofit, which is on Los Ranchitos Road near the train tracks, fully supports implementing quiet zones.
"Without a quiet zone behind us, the trains will be sounding their horns as they come into the station between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. This will be stressful for our clients, staff, and dogs to have to listen to," Benninger said.
If the city chooses to establish quiet zones, it must review each crossing and come up with a plan for additional safety improvements. The review must include input from SMART, the California Public Utilities Commission, the Federal Railroad Administration, the North Coast Railroad Authority and Caltrans.
The city would need to file a notice of intent to establish a quiet zone with SMART, the California Public Utilities Commission, the Federal Railroad Administration and the North Coast Railroad Authority. These agencies would have 60 days to comment on the review plans. Once quiet zones are approved by the Federal Railroad Administration, the city can install the additional safety measures and create a document known as the notice of establishment.
The notice is sent to all the agencies involved, local governments affected by the quiet zones and property owners affected by private crossings. Trains are required to adhere to the quiet zones within 21 days.
Mackle said the city has plenty of time to submit the application.
In the interim, the city is focused on providing feedback to SMART on the platform or station designs, which are 65 percent complete. The council plans to discuss the designs at its Sept. 2 meeting and provide comments to SMART by Sept. 15. Mackle said people can expect to see platforms next year.
"Construction will commence most likely in the spring," she said.
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Copyright 2014 - The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.