Felida-area residents renew efforts to turn railroad crossing into quiet zone

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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When Alvin Black moved into his Felida home in January, he expected to hear the lugging of trains moving along the tracks. He didn't expect to hear four blares of the horn from each passing train.

And with an average of 60 trains per day coming through the crossing at Northwest 122nd Street, Black and his family hear a couple hundred train horns each day, at all hours of the day — morning, afternoon, evening and dead of night.

"You can't hear yourself, even in the house," Black said. "You have to stop talking, wait for it to pass, and then start talking again."

Black and a group of his Felida neighbors are hoping to get the crossing turned into a 24-hour quiet zone.

But the idea isn't new. It's been a project in the works for nearly three years with little progress.

Back in the fall of 2011, neighbors approached the county about establishing a quiet zone. County commissioners held a work session on the issue in January 2012 and planned to ask the Federal Railroad Administration that year for permission to redesign the crossing at Northwest 122nd Street, which leads to the Felida Moorage.

The county hoped to add 100 feet of nontraversable medians to 122nd Street on both sides of the tracks. The medians would make it impossible for cars to go around the single gates currently at the crossing. The median would make the crossing safe enough to eliminate the train horns used to alert people of approaching trains, said Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy analyst.

County officials thought the improvements could be done for about $25,000, Swanson said. They later learned that the narrow road and steep slope on the east side of the tracks would make the project more costly, he said.

"The cost got to the point it just couldn't be a county project anymore," Swanson said. "It needed to be a community project or a neighborhood project."

The quiet-zone efforts had all but stopped by the time Black, his husband and their two boys moved into the area, Black said. But since then, neighbors have engaged the county to restart the project.

About half a dozen people who live in the area are actively involved in the effort. They've met with county staff and local legislators. They've connected with residents who have spearheaded similar efforts in other areas of the county. And they have an email group of about 40 people who want to stay updated on the project's progress, Black said.

"This isn't just us," he said. "We're not just being whiny."

The train crossing is at Northwest 122nd Street. Black's home is southeast of the crossing on Northwest 118th Circle. Residents on his street and those living farther south on Northwest 115th Street have voiced frustration about the train noise, as have people living in the neighborhoods to the north of the crossing.

BNSF Railway, which owns and maintains the tracks, and the Federal Railroad Administration require conductors to sound the horn four times — two long whistles, one short whistle and another long — beginning a quarter-mile from the public crossing, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The horns must continue until the lead locomotive reaches the crossing, he said.

Melonas said BNSF would support a quiet zone as long as safety improvements are made at the crossing.

Black said he and many others in the area are willing to help pay for the necessary improvements. But in order to get the support of additional residents, Black said he needs a more concrete plan — and price tag — from the county.

The county's current rough estimates vary wildly, from $125,000 for directional wayside horns to $770,000 to install four quadrant gates at the crossing. The rough estimate for the median project is about $350,000.

The neighbors are also asking the county to perform a sound assessment to determine who is affected by the noise and by how much. That way they know which neighbors to approach about creating a road improvement district to pay for the enhancements.

Swanson said the county is currently reviewing the topography of the area and trying to determine once and for all whether the median improvement is feasible and what exactly would need to be done to make the project work.

In the meantime, Black and his family are learning to live with the constant horns.

Black and his husband, Seth Hutton, have twin 3-year-old boys, A.J. and Sterling Black-Hutton. The late-night train horns often wake the boys. On the heavier train traffic days, Black can see the effect on the boys' behavior. The noise has an even bigger impact on Sterling, who has autism.

Their home has features to help muffle the train noise, such as triple-pane windows and walls with extra insulation. But even they can't block all the noise, Black said.

Black said he understands the county has many other projects and theirs isn't at the top of the priority list, but he hopes to see work on the quiet zone continue.

"My fear is it's going to take another four to five years on top of this at the rate we're going," Black said.