Vancouver still working on silencing train horns

City has little money for fixing crossings

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Quieting trains in Vancouver is going to Plan B.

Vancouver is still on track to silence the train horn blasts that punctuate silent evenings and busy afternoons from downtown to Southeast 164th Avenue — it’s just the journey’s been a lot longer than planners expected.

The city has been working with neighbors, the Federal Railroad Administration and BNSF Railway to quell the horns in three areas — downtown, central and east Vancouver — but unexpected bureaucratic bumps and cost increases have caused a delay.

A vast swath of town hears the blasts 24 hours a day, due to a 2005 federal law requiring engineers to blast their horns for 15 to 20 seconds before a crossing. To establish a quiet zone, additional safety measures — beyond the usual flashing lights and gates — must be installed, and BNSF also has to agree that they’re comfortable with the plans.

But the city has no money to pay for those safety measures, meaning neighbors and businesses have to come together and find ways to pay for the work.

After more than three years of discussions, just one of eight crossings has been silenced.

In a workshop on Monday afternoon, the city council gave the go-ahead to spend about $80,000 to engineer a fix in east Vancouver, and heard updates about what’s needed for the rest of the city.

Downtown

• Eighth and Jefferson streets: The $44 million waterfront access project will close the intersection at Eighth and Jefferson streets by late 2013, eliminating the need for engineers to blast horns there.

• Hill and 11th streets: The cheapest fix is putting medians in the center of the road, which make it difficult for even the most dedicated drivers to get over them, around a owned crossing gate, and into the path of an oncoming train, Vancouver Transportation Planning Manager Matt Ransom said. But medians would block access to businesses at these crossings, so noise-reducing wayside horns are probably the best solution at both, he said.

Wayside horns offer a more directed alarm to approaching drivers, cyclist

sand pedestrians: Train whistles generally ring in at just under 110 decibels, with a range of about 31 acres, said Robert Albritton of Quiet Zone Technologies, a Texas company that manufactures the wayside horns that was hired by the city to demonstrate the technology last summer. Wayside horns have a 92 decibel level that spans less than one acre.

The cost is more than $100,000 for one horn on each side of a crossing, Albritton said. Ransom made it clear that’s a tab the city’s not going to pick up, meaning surrounding businesses or others will have to pay.

The noise downtown is of particular concern to the city as developers attempt to lure investment to the former Boise Cascade industrial site along the Columbia River downtown, envisioned as a $1 billion-plus mecca of shopping, restaurants, parkland, restaurants, residences and office space.

“I’m trying very hard to remain diplomatic and statesman-like in expressing my frustration in the duration its taken to get to this point,” said Mayor Tim Leavitt, who lives in a condominium at Eighth and Columbia streets, well within earshot of the trains’ signature “bronk” noises. “Living with that and trying to do business downtown is sometimes impossible.”

Central Vancouver

• Beach Drive: A six-inch-high concrete median was installed about 100 feet back from the crossing last year, and the crossing is silent. Conductors still occasionally blow horns when they feel it’s necessary for safety reasons.

• Chelsea Drive: A wayside horn is also probably the best option at this private crossing, where neighbors have to negotiate with BNSF for a fix.

The estimated cost of installing the quieter wayside horns there is $155,000, which must be covered by residents. In September 2010, neighbor George Grill sent out a letter to 204 of his fellow residents of the Riverview neighborhood, offering to donate $5,000 to the cause himself and asking for more pledges. Grill and a friend also have met with some neighborhood groups, including condo owner associations. Only about 10 people, including Grill, had offered to help, for a total of $31,500.

East side

• Southeast 139th, 147th and 164th avenues: A majority of residents had agreed in 2009 to find $1.2 million amongst themselves to form a limited improvement district to install four-armed gates to totally block drivers from entering the crossing. But since that time, the estimates for that work rose to more than $1.8 million.

“We sold a $1.2 million project, and to come back with something that is 60 percent more costly may be a non-starter,” Ransom said.

So instead, Vancouver has moved to a Plan B, which would involve putting in durable plastic medians along Evergreen Highway, and then six-inch medians along the three avenues. The plan would also likely include speed bumps or other traffic-calming devices along Evergreen Highway to slow people as they approach crossings, with the medians to help prevent drivers from hitting them.

Planners estimate that the new plans for east Vancouver will cost $600,000 to $1,000,000. The council asked staff to begin design work on Plan B at an estimated cost of $80,000 that would be paid back by the limited improvement district. The city will be out that $80,000 if residents vote against forming a limited improvement district.

A limited improvement district would add an annual payment to residents’ property taxes to pay for bonds for the work. The city council would have to approve the district, which they indicated they would do.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542, http://facebook.com/reporterdamewood, http://twitter.com/col_cityhall or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.