Quiet zones take effect at Vancouver train crossings

East Vancouver residents praised for work affecting 3 sites

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photoRoger Parsons of the East Vancouver Train Horn Noise Advisory Committee.

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photoRoger Parsons, spokesman for the East Vancouver Train Horn Noise Advisory Committee, photographs a sign next to the upgraded crossing at Southeast 147th Avenue on Wednesday. Parsons and his neighbors have been working for more than four years on getting the quiet zones established and agreed to pay for the required crossing upgrades.

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A BNSF Railway train went through a crossing at Southeast 147th Avenue without sounding its horn on Wednesday afternoon, and a group of neighbors and city employees cheered. Then a few of them had to laugh — it was a coal train.

Oh well, one fight at a time.

It was the first day quiet zones were in effect in east Vancouver and the absence of the regular "BRONKKK" sound was appreciated. Approximately 60 trains travel through a day, and neighbors formed a group in 2008 to establish quiet zones. The city had been studying quiet zones since 2005, when the Federal Railroad Administration approved the concept.

Did you know?

• The Federal Railroad Administration 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 is eliminated.

• The East Vancouver Train Horn Noise Advisory Committee formed in 2008.

• Owners of 467 parcels near the Columbia River paid for crossing upgrades required for quiet zones. Three of the four crossings are on public streets.

"We're elated and relieved," said Roger Parsons, a pilot who has served as spokesman for the East Vancouver Train Horn Noise Advisory Committee. The first day was a transition day, Parsons said, so about three out of every four trains passed through without a horn.

Since negotiating with different levels of government and BNSF has made for such a long process, Parsons said the neighbors appreciate the victory even more than if it had been as easy as simply asking the city council to upgrade the crossings.

As for the reminder that more coal trains could be running through the neighborhood as part of a proposed coal export terminal in Longview — or oil trains that would be going through if the Port of Vancouver gets an oil terminal — Parsons said people who live near train tracks should be involved and ask questions about the impacts.

"It's our duty to be educated about the proposals," he said.

But first, they could take a day to celebrate. When a second train passed, the only whistle was a wooden one blown by Brian Carlson, the city's director of public works.

In May, the Vancouver City Council unanimously approved the formation of a local improvement district so owners of 467 parcels near the Columbia River could pay for railroad crossing safety upgrades necessary to establish quiet zones at Southeast 139th, 147th and 164th avenues.

The property owners are also going to pay for upgrades that were done at the crossing at 144th Avenue, a private road. Even though private crossings don't require a horn, the FRA required upgrades as part of the total project.

To meet federal requirements, the crossings received new medians, extra lighting, signs and striping.

In late September, the city notified the FRA that the work had been completed, which started a 21-day waiting period before the quiet zones took effect. Posted signs on Southeast Evergreen Highway warn drivers that trains won't sound horns, although engineers can still blow a horn to avoid an accident.

While homeowners don't yet know exactly how much they'll be asked to pay to reimburse the city, they do know it will be less than they anticipated.

The estimate for the project, including design work, was $818,000, but Dan Swensen, the engineering and construction services manager for the city's public works department, said Wednesday it will be at least $150,000 less.

Property owners in the East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association, which includes Steamboat Landing and Rivercrest Estates homeowner associations, were placed on three different tiers based on how much they'll benefit from the quiet zone. Homeowners could make annual payments with their property taxes or make one discounted lump-sum payment. The estimates for lump-sum payments ranged from $743 to $2,475, but since the final cost isn't known the individual bills haven't been recalculated, Swensen said. Property owners will be notified in the spring, he said.

Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Larry Smith were among those who met neighbors at the crossing on Wednesday. Both credited residents for their patience and ability to understand that the city, which has a backlog of infrastructure projects, didn't have the money to pay for residential quiet zones.

In 2009, 64 percent of affected property owners responded to a city 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 improvements.

"They were willing to step up and pay for it," said Smith, who said he could hear the train horns from his Cascade Park home.

"Everyone will benefit from it," Smith said.

The city has also silenced trains in downtown Vancouver by closing the Eighth Street crossing as part of a $40 million waterfront access project.