Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Washington residents skeptical of quiet zones, crossing closures
WASHINGTON — Potential railroad crossing closures, safety improvements and quiet zone plans for the city of Washington met harsh criticism at an informational meeting Monday night. All but one speaker at the event, held in the Washington High School Auditorium, said they opposed efforts to establish a railroad quiet zone as the city prepares for an over-14-per-day increase in train traffic if a merger is approved between freight companies Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern.
Most who attended the meeting said they had no problem with the noise of passing trains, despite living close to the railway and despite consultants saying Washington had the most crossings per capita on the CP line.
“I’ve lived here all my life, we used to have three railroads in this town,” Washington Resident Gerald Franzen said. “I have more problems with barking dogs in this town, I live 300 feet from the tracks.”
Russel Lyon, a Washington resident and Canadian Pacific employee, said horns were essential to public safety given the tendency of people to walk on the tracks, at crossings or otherwise.
“I came around the corner in my high-rail, and there was a girl getting her senior pictures taken,” he said. “I can stop quickly, but it would have been bad news. Pedestrians, trespassers, they pass wherever they want. There’s a lot of kids on the tracks.”
Others said they wanted the city to address its road infrastructure in preparation of increasingly frequent crossing blockages when trains roll through town.
One speaker, who did not identify himself, said he worried crossing closures would jeopardize emergency vehicle routes if a train would block traffic across town.
“We’re talking about closing crossings, making it more difficult to live in town, making it harder to get from one side to the other,” he said. “The issue is, we’ve got an underpass that’s been neglected for decades, and it needs to be addressed … that needs to be their top priority, not horns, nobody cares about horns.”
Still, that may not be a realistic option for the near future, according to SRF Consulting Group Vice President Andy Mielke, who presented on the results of a quiet zone study from his company.
He said infrastructure needed for quiet zones could be pricey, but paled in comparison to more convenient alternatives.
“Anecdotally, I’ll tell you that the cost of a closure is a drop in the bucket in comparison to an underpass or grade separation,” Mielke said. “But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? … that money may help with the drainage issues that were spoken of earlier, but to actually get a whole new grade separation, you’re looking at $20 million, probably.”
Local government officials said they were also worried about the safety implications of a quiet zone. All but one of the infrastructure improvement proposals necessary for a quiet zone would increase the city’s risk index, but still keep it below the national average.
Washington County Emergency Management Coordinator Marissa Reisen said that possibility worried her, given tentative plans by the railroad to raise train speeds to 60 mph from the current 40, a change not assumed in projections of the city’s risk index.
"One of the examples that you used for a quiet zone was the city of Fairfield … there have been at least three pedestrian deaths on the railroad tracks,“ she said. ”I have a very significant concern about that, especially given the proximity of our schools being on both sides of the railroad tracks.“
Some municipal officials said they were skeptical of quiet zones as well, but would continue to hear out public opinion either way.
“This is not the city council’s decision, this is your decision, we want to do what the majority wants,” City Council Member Elaine Moore said. “I personally find it difficult, after living here for the last 40-some years, thinking of closing North Iowa … these are things we need to know, as council members, how you are going to be effected.”
If the city does pursue quiet zone infrastructure, City Administrator Deanna McCusker said it would use grants and existing reserves, rather than tax for the money to do so.
“As far as I am concerned, we will not raise property taxes to do this, that is not anybody’s intention,” she said.
Those comments were in spite of an offer from Canadian Pacific announced at the meeting, which would pick up the roughly $1 million bill for four-quadrant crossing gates at West Main Street and North Fourth Avenue if the city closed railroad crossings at North F Avenue, C Avenue and Iowa Avenue. The option was the only one presented by consultants that would lower Washington’s risk index if it declared a quiet zone.
The boost would lower the city’s cost for quiet zone infrastructure to around $765,000 if it made upgrades to Palm Avenue east of town, or under $400,000 if the zone was issued only within city limits, according to Mielke.
“That makes it a very cost-effective option, I’m not saying it’s the right option,” he said.
Mielke said the city could ostensibly close other crossings — instead of the three listed — with similar effects on its risk index, although the railroad’s willingness to foot a bill in that scenario is unclear.
A representative from Canadian Pacific did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Despite the wave of criticism, a single speaker at the meeting said he was in favor of a quiet zone for the city of Washington.
Jon Rees is a pastor at Faith Baptist Church, around 100 feet from the tracks on Washington’s west side, and a few blocks from their crossing with West Main Street. He said the horns were often disruptive during worship, and could lower overall quality of life for residents.
“There are some evenings where we’ve been outside, and it just, it’s relentless in terms of some of the horn usage,” he said. “On Sunday mornings, there’s times when we’re preaching or doing stuff in the service, and there’s this whistle that’s like, ‘Alright, we’ve got to wait a few seconds before we keep going,’ … that could be pretty disruptive for some services.”