The Tampa Bay Times – Clearwater seeks to cut noise from trains in its downtown

Posted on October 31, 2014

By Mike Brassfield

CLEARWATER — Railroad tracks have been running through downtown Clearwater since 1910. Nearly a century later, the Station Square condominium tower opened in 2008, pretty much right next to the tracks.

Now Station Square residents are complaining about the noise from train horns. In response, the city of Clearwater is preparing to spend public money to establish a railroad “quiet zone,” an area where train engineers don’t have to sound their horns.

“We all know the train was here before,” said Miguel Hall, president of the homeowners board at Station Square. “But you can’t even be outside on a balcony when the trains go by. It’s so loud, it’s excruciating. They blow the horn at every intersection and halfway through each intersection, and the sound goes straight up and ricochets off everything.”

The quiet zone will be created by adding gates, traffic controls and other safety measures to railroad crossings.

That can be pricey. Creating a quiet zone at every crossing in the city limits would cost nearly $2 million. Instead, the city will try it just in the immediate downtown area, which will cost roughly $250,000. A state grant could cover half the cost.

“To be honest, the only complaints we’ve gotten are from downtown,” Clearwater traffic operations manager Paul Bertels recently told the City Council.

At least twice a day, and sometimes four times a day, a CSX train makes its way through Pinellas County. The railroad tracks run east-west through much of Clearwater and north-south through its downtown.

Those tracks run north-south through Safety Harbor, east-west through Oldsmar and then toward Tampa suburbs like Westchase. To the south, they go through Belleair, Largo and Pinellas Park on their way to St. Petersburg.

However, the train also sometimes runs through Clearwater in the middle of the night, delivering gravel on demand to a concrete mixing plant in Largo. That’s what’s keeping Station Square residents awake in their condos.

“The track runs past my subdivision as well,” Clearwater City Council Member Hoyt Hamilton said. “But the expense of making the entire city a quiet zone is going to be phenomenal. I don’t know if I have the appetite for that.”

Elected officials originally hadn’t wanted to spend any public money at all on a quiet zone, but they reconsidered when Station Square residents pointed out that state grants were available.

News of the grants surfaced when Tampa recently went through the same process. After months of complaints from residents of downtown high-rises, Tampa’s City Council voted in August to figure out how to create a quiet zone through its downtown and Ybor City.

Tampa is paying an engineering consultant $90,000 to study the problem.

As downtown Tampa gets more dense and urban, sound from CSX train horns bounces off buildings. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn worries that the problem has the potential to stifle growth.

CSX says its engineers don’t blast their horns on a whim. CSX Florida vice president Bob O’Malley says the federal government requires engineers to sound the horns 15 to 20 seconds before they reach a public crossing.

Buckhorn learned that Gov. Rick Scott not only supports the controversial All Aboard Florida passenger rail project on Florida’s east coast, but also agreed to include $10 million for quiet zones in the state budget. And that grant money is available outside of All Aboard Florida’s service area.

In Clearwater, officials say it might take at least two years to set up a quiet zone downtown.

“The railroad moves very slow,” Bertels said. “They’re very difficult to work with.”

You don’t have to live in downtown to hear the train whistles, Mayor George Cretekos said.

“Depending on how the wind blows,” he said, “sometimes over on Sand Key we hear the train in the middle of the night.”

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