Since becoming Mayor, neighbors and
residents have been approaching me about what to do about the train noise in
Bellingham. It is a subject of discussion at almost every Mayor’s
Neighborhood Advisory Commission meeting, as neighborhood representatives
express their frustration with trains that use their horns as they pass
directly through seven City neighborhoods. The trains can be heard day and
night throughout the city as they travel along our waterfront.
One option we have for reducing train noise is to
qualify for a
quiet zone under rules established by the Federal Railroad
Administration (FRA). A quiet zone is a stretch of track at least a half a
mile long where the FRA has agreed that trains are not required to sound the
horn at each public crossing except in emergencies. In other cities that
have done this, these quiet zones have reduced routine horns, although the
engineers still have the authority to sound the horn if they see something
on or near the tracks. Only the FRA can grant a quiet zone through the quiet
zone application process, and the Bellingham City Council would make the
final decision about pursuing and establishing quiet zones.
This month, I am proposing that the City make a formal request to the
Federal Railroad Administration to establish quiet zones in Bellingham.
What is a quiet zone?
Local government must work in cooperation with the railroad and the state
transportation authority to assess the risk of collision at each proposed
at-grade crossing. A determination is made about the safety improvements
necessary to reduce the risk associated with silencing the horns based on
local conditions such as road traffic volumes, train traffic volumes, the
accident history and physical characteristics of the crossing, and existing
Communities can invest in additional at-grade crossing safety devices to
qualify for a quiet zone. Once all necessary safety improvements are
complete, the local community must certify to FRA that the required level of
risk reduction has been achieved. A quiet zone becomes effective – and train
horns will normally not sound – only when all necessary additional safety
measures are installed and operational. Even with the establishment of a
quiet zone, however, trains can still sound their horns if the train crew
sees a person, vehicle or animal on or near the track. Trains will also
sound their horns when a stopped train starts moving, the crossing equipment
is not functioning properly, or when construction workers are near the
City’s next steps
The City of Bellingham has been contemplating
quiet zones for years. The first study was conducted in 2007 and updated
in 2012, and the City has moved forward on creating two rail crossings that
would begin the quiet zone process. The City has a contract with Burlington
Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) to create a controlled crossing at the Boulevard
Park pedestrian crossing, and another contract pending for C Street.
Improving these two crossing will be a big step towards getting quiet zones
established, and we anticipate construction on both projects in 2015.
While staff have been addressing these and several other key crossings, we
are now prepared to take the next step and establish an official quiet zone
in the city. The proposal is to install improvements at 11 quiet zone
crossings in total – five in Fairhaven and six along the central waterfront.
This is estimated to cost as much as $5 million to $6 million in
improvements. Currently, the zone is proposed to be paid for with local
funds, but we are exploring possible state and federal funding as well. In
any case, the City will advocate that at-grade rail crossings be designed to
quiet zone standards.
Because of the cost, we will be paying as we go, establishing how we will
fund the projects, and ensuring that we are addressing all transportation
needs throughout the city. Quiet zone establishment is a statewide issue,
and we are part of an Association of Washington Cities coalition to
coordinate our messages to our state and federal representatives.
In the meantime, the City of Bellingham continues to make progress in moving
our quiet-zone effort forward. On December 15, Bellingham City Council
passed a resolution to establish a quiet zone, and I have submitted an
official letter to the FRA requesting the establishment of a quiet zone. The
next step is to work with the FRA on the improvements of at-grade crossings.
It is my hope that together with the Bellingham City Council, our state and
federal agencies, and our neighborhoods and residents, we can move forward
on addressing this issue of train horn noise and produce solutions that will
help improve the quality of life for everyone in Bellingham.
For more information on quiet zones, please see the
City’s FAQ on train horns.