Neighbors triumph in long train noise fight

After nine years, the bureaucracy is lined up to establish quiet zones

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt thanked a group of residents last week for having a quality essential to interacting with government: patience.

Talking to East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood residents, who first started asking in 2004 how they could get trains to stop blowing their horns at crossings, Leavitt acknowledged the long and tedious process.

"I'm sure it was an indoctrination for many of you into the sometimes very bureaucratic process to get something done, right?" Leavitt said. "And I know it was frustrating at times — and it's frustrating for us up here at times, as well — to get some of these things done."

At the meeting, the council unanimously approved the formation of a local improvement district so owners of 467 parcels near the Columbia River can pay for railroad crossing safety upgrades necessary to establish quiet zones at Southeast 139th, 144th, 147th and 164th avenues.

All crossings but the one at 144th Avenue are public.

To meet federal requirements, the crossings will be upgraded with new medians, extra lighting, signs and striping.

Matt Ransom, the city's project development and policy manager, said Tuesday the project has been put out for bid, and the bid opening will be June 11.

In March, the council passed a resolution of intent to form the local improvement district.

The city started working on quiet-zone proposals soon after the Federal Railway Administration issued guidelines for such zones in 2005.

The current cost estimate for the project, including design work, is $818,000.

The city could issue 20-year bonds, and homeowners could make annual payments with their property taxes or make one discounted, early lump-sum payment.

Exact assessments won't be known until after the bidding, Ransom said.

Property owners in the neighborhood, which includes Steamboat Landing and Rivercrest homeowner associations, were placed on different tiers based on how much they'll benefit from the quiet zone. Tentatively, owners of 218 lots labeled Tier 1 could pay $177 a year for 20 years or make an early payment of $2,475. Owners of 95 Tier 2 lots could pay $124 a year or $1,733. Owners of 154 Tier 3 lots could pay $53 a year or $743.

In 2009, 64 percent of affected property owners responded to a survey meant to gauge support for a local improvement district. Of those who responded, 81 percent were in favor of forming the district to pay for the required crossing improvements.

Ransom said construction is expected to start this summer and run into early fall. He doesn't have a precise estimate on when trains will go silent, but he expects the city will have secured approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to establish the quiet zone by November, which will be the final step.

The FRA requires horns be sounded for 15 to 20 seconds before entering all public grade crossings, but not more than one-quarter mile in advance. In a quiet zone, a horn could still be blown to avoid accidents, but the routine sounding of horns would be eliminated.

The FRA has already granted the city conditional approval of a quiet zone, Ransom said, so after the completion of the construction, the FRA will establish the quiet zone and notify BNSF Railway to comply with federal rules regarding quiet zones.

Resident Roger Parsons, a pilot who has served as spokesman for the East Vancouver Train Horn Noise Advisory Committee, told the city council on May 20 that residents had earned the council's support. The committee formed in 2008.

State law had to be changed to allow a local improvement district to be used to pay for crossing upgrades to facilitate a quiet zone, and the federal law regarding quiet zones had to be established, Parsons said.

"It was very easy to give up anywhere along the line, by the staff and the communities," Parson said. "We did not do that."

A few residents have said they are not in favor of the local improvement district, including one woman who questioned whether fire engines would be able to make it through the new crossings.

Parsons reassured the council that the FRA considered all safety issues before issuing conditional approval of the quiet zone.

"It's all been taken care of; it's not a factor," Parsons said. "If it was, a number of agencies would be in here trying to shut it down."

"We want this to happen," Parsons said.

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