Quiet train crossing ahead?

Quest for horn-free zone in Felida has stretched on for a year and counting

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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photoThe Felida crossing has signals and arms that lower to keep drivers off the tracks. The county wants to upgrade the crossing so it can be a quiet zone.

(/The Columbian)

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Establishing a 24-hour quiet zone at a train crossing in Felida has been more complicated than officials and residents had hoped.

But county commissioners are still planning on asking the Federal Railroad Administration this year for permission to redesign the crossing at Northwest 122nd Street, which leads to the Felida Moorage, so it will be safe enough without trains needing to announce their arrival with horns.

In January, commissioners had a work session on the issue, which was broached last fall by real estate agent Troy Jensen. As a Salmon Creek resident, Jensen can hear the horns in the distance but he's not the one bothered by them. Instead, he's heard from people who bought homes in new developments on the hill above the crossing, including The Bungalows at Messner Estates, Falcons Rest, Moongate, Bella Ridge and others. He said he was approached by some residents about the train horns, and he told them he'd inquire with the county about a quiet zone.

He didn't realize it would take a year and counting.

Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy analyst, said one unanticipated delay was caused by the fact that the crossing's risk index was inaccurate. After Swanson sent a Jan. 25 letter to BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks, and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, he learned from the UTC that data on the crossing was inaccurate and had to be updated. The inaccurate data included daily traffic counts, pavement markings and advance warning signs; it was updated this summer.

Swanson also heard concerns from both BNSF and the UTC about the county's plans for installing mountable medians, which had been chosen as a cost-savings measure at the signalized crossing that currently falls below safety standards even with horns.

Unlike the city of Vancouver, which has told residents they have to pay for improvements to crossings in residential neighborhoods, the county has offered to pay to upgrade the Felida crossing. Swanson told commissioners at the January meeting he hoped it would be no more than $20,000, but costs may increase depending on how much work will be required.

David Danner, executive director of the UTC, wrote that he had concerns about limited sight distance for drivers, "specifically the restricted sight distances of 40 feet in the northeast and 300 feet in the southeast quadrants," Danner wrote. "The minimum required sight distance based on the speed of the train and vehicles is approximately 700 feet. As you know, the earth embankment in the northeast quadrant significantly impairs the driver's view of any oncoming train."

Danner added that drivers pulling boats to and from the Felida Moorage need additional time to cross the two-lane tracks.

While acknowledging the intersection qualifies to be a quiet zone, Danner wrote that if the signal failed and the gate didn't come down, "if train horns are silenced at this crossing, motorists would likely be unable to visually detect an oncoming train."

Richard Wagner, manager for public projects for BNSF, echoed Danner's concerns. He wrote that when he met with Swanson and Steve Schulte, the county's transportation manager, at the crossing in September 2011 for an evaluation, he was left with the impression that it was understood the crossing would require costly wayside horns (which have focused blasts that are significantly quieter than train horns) and non-traversable medians.

Impatient drivers can go up and over mountable medians in order to get around lowered signal arms.

Those are inadequate, Wagner wrote.

"I am sure that you agree that public safety is a priority for all of us, and we are simply bringing our public safety concerns to your attention," Wagner wrote.

The county has since agreed to install non-traversable medians.

Another delay, Swanson said, was working out right-of-way issues with BNSF.

Later this month, Swanson said there will be another on-site evaluation and then he'll start the monthslong process of getting permission from the FRA.

While the county had hoped to be able to not get the federal government involved, there's inadequate space on the west side of the crossing (60 feet as opposed to the required 100 feet), so the FRA has to approve the exception.

Jensen said he remains optimistic that there will eventually be a quiet zone.

The tracks where the trains run through Felida have been there since 1873. More than 50 trains, including ones from Union Pacific, pass through in a 24-hour period,

Dave Reinhardt knew about the tracks when he and his wife Maryclare decided to sell their home in Salmon Creek and build a home in the Moongate subdivison, which was the site of the 2011 Parade of Homes. They spent two years building their home and did quite a bit of the work themselves, Reinhardt said, so they heard the horns.

They loved the property and their view of Vancouver Lake. With the trains in mind, they installed soundproof windows.

"We thought we could design our home and insulate ourselves from the noise," he said. He said he and his wife have adjusted to the noise, but become aware of it when they have company over.

"It's still a pretty good blast," Reinhardt said. Train traffic has increased, a trend he anticipates will continue as the economy starts to gain some strength.

He's read where quiet zones have become a bigger issue nationally, which prompted the FRA to update quiet zone guidelines.

"Populations increase, you need new homes," he said. "Before, there were wide open spaces and you could build away from train whistles. You've got to now put homes and businesses where you hadn't in the past."

He said he's grateful the county has stepped up to pay for the crossing improvements, and, like Jensen, he's hopeful the quiet zone will eventually be in place.

"I'm guardedly optimistic," Reinhardt said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.