Jeff residents talk with city council about train quiet zones

Jefferson residents have differing opinions about creating a train quiet zone through the city, but no matter what direction the city council takes in the matter, residents have had their say.

About 30 persons attended a public meeting about quiet zones that was held as part of the council’s regular meeting July 26. Mayor Craig Berry and mayor pro tem Harry Ahrenholtz were both absent; council member Larry Teeples presided.

Some of those who spoke lobbied for leaving all four current crossings – Cedar St, Wilson, Maple St and Grimmell Road – open, while others spoke of how the noise of train whistles has negatively impacted their lives. None of those who spoke said wayside horns should not be installed.

Civil engineer Gabe Nelson of Snyder and Associates presented information. He was project manager for the Elm St overpass and was part of discussions then about closing railroad crossings. The city has since closed the Pinet St crossing.

The overpass opened in October 2013. Since then, traffic counts at the Elm St crossing have increased 11.5 percent, from 6,674 (Monday-Friday average crossings) to 7,439. More than 73 percent of the crossing of railroad tracks was done via the overpass.

The May 2016 traffic count shows 1.035 crossings at Grimmell Road (10.2 percent), 740 at Cedar St (7.3 percent), 505 at Wilson (5 percent) and 414 at Maple St (1.7 percent).

Nelson explained that railroads are required to sound their whistle one-fourth mile out from any crossing. The four crossings in Jefferson are close enough that engineers need to signal nearly continuously to meet that requirement.

Closing crossings is one way to reduce noise. Supplemental safety measures are another. Those measures can be wayside horns, concrete medians or four-quadrant gate systems. If the city demonstrates the risk at crossings has been reduced, train crews do not need to sound the whistle.

Wayside horns are mounted at the crossing and sound automatically when a train approaches. They are mounted so as to project the signal more directly at drivers than train whistles. According to Nelson, their sound impacts only as far as one city block from the crossing. Wayside horns would cost $25,000 per crossing.

A concrete median is rather like a boulevard in the middle of the street and prevents a motorist from driving around gate arms. Nelson said the majority of train accidents occur at double track crossings like those in Jefferson. A driver sees a train pass and then drives around the gate arms, not seeing a train approaching on the other track.

The cost to install a concrete median ranges from $65,000 at Grimmell Road to $12,000 at Cedar St, with the width of the street causing the variation in cost.

A four-quadrant gate system would cost $600,000 per crossing. That option was given little attention.

Elvin Thompson asked the council to leave all four crossings open and to install wayside horns. He and his wife walk and bicycle all over town and the overpass is not easy for either activity. He said closing crossings would isolate the north part of town, “the other side of the tracks” decades ago, from the rest of Jefferson.

Lois Wistenberg lives 1-1/2 blocks from the Maple St crossing. She said she no longer notices the noise of trains, and although she had a child hit by a train many years ago, she is not in favor of closing crossings. She said children on the north side of town riding bicycles to the pool or other destinations use the Maple St crossing. “I’m not in favor of those kids having to use the overpass to get to the pool,” she said.

John Schoening doesn’t live near the railroad tracks but is close enough to hear the train whistles. He also spoke against closing crossings but asked for wayside horns.

Cindy Tapper, owner of Total Image by Cindy spoke against closing the Wilson and Maple St crossings. Her business had a drive off Elm St before the overpass was built. Customers now must access her business via Vine St, and many of them use the Wilson crossing. She also spoke on behalf of Dean McAtee, who is concerned that closing the Maple St crossing would limit access of delivery trucks to McAtee Tire and Service.

Ron Kolbeck, who lives one block from the railroad tracks on McKinley St, told the council there are times that the noise level from the train whistles is painful. “There are times the sound almost puts me to my knees,” he said.

“Why does safety (train whistles) have to hurt so much?” he asked.

Adrienne Smith said the number of trains and the level of noise has increased in the 32 years she and her husband have lived in their N. Olive St home. “You can’t sit outside and have a decent conversation. We have to stop our conversation until the train goes through. Our blood pressure goes up and we get mad. We can’t have our windows open any more. It’s just non-stop with the trains,” she said.

At the close of the public meeting Nelson said the cost of closing a crossing is about $14,000, and that funds are available from Union Pacific railroad and the Iowa Department of Transportation to cover that cost.

There is no other funding available for installing supplemental safety measures.

Teeples said the council would continue discussions.

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