The TC Palm: Local governments oppose, want more information on train horns The TC Palm

Posted on October 9, 2015

Lisa Broadt

Some Treasure Coast officials want All Aboard Florida trains to keep blowing their horns as they zip through the Treasure Coast.

Train horns are the lesser of two evils, officials say.

All Aboard Florida, on the other hand, wants to attach horns to the tracks at road crossings. But those installations — called wayside horns — would be louder and more bothersome to nearby residents, officials said at a meeting last month with the Federal Railroad Administration.

All Aboard Florida officials on Thursday declined to explain the benefits and possible locations of wayside horns, but a recent environmental-impact report said noise would “significantly decrease with the use of pole-mounted horns as compared to the current use of train-mounted horns.”

“We remain committed to coordinating with the Treasure Coast to advance public safety, decrease noise and interruptions and find collaborative ways to work together,” an All Aboard Florida spokeswoman said Thursday in an email.

The Federal Railroad Administration has suggested local governments voice their opposition in letters to All Aboard Florida.

“They’re loud and they transmit noise up the streets instead of down the tracks,” Michael Busha, executive director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, said of track-mounted horns. “The preference for noise mitigation for most local governments, if there aren’t going to be quiet zones, is train horns.”

At the very least, track-mounted horns merit further review, according to Frank Watanabe, Sebastian community-development director and engineer.

As part of its $3 billion, Miami-to-Orlando passenger-rail project, All Aboard Florida would install track-mounted horns at six of Sebastian’s seven crossings, according to the environmental report released Aug. 4.

Barber Street would be the city’s only crossing excluded, according to the report.

“The city will need to review these wayside horns with final 90 percent design plans,” Watanabe said about draft engineering plans provided by All Aboard Florida to local governments. Those plans would show tentative locations of the horns and other proposed crossing-safety measures.

St. Lucie County also needs more information before making a decision, according to Administrator Howard Tipton.

“We’re still evaluating but I imagine we will take a position shortly,” Tipton said.

The news of continued blasts from the existing Florida East Coast Railway freight trains and future noise from All Aboard Florida’s planned 16 daily round trips could come as an unpleasant surprise to locals who have asked the government help reduce train noise.

Quieting the horns of existing trains has become a pressing issue since December, when Florida East Coast added new locomotives to its fleet with horns that have generated a slew of noise complaints.

Implementing quiet zones — crossings where safety upgrades negate the need for a train to sound its horn — has been the preferred alternative for communities from Miami to West Palm Beach, where track construction already is underway.

All Aboard Florida has sweetened the allure of noise reduction by offering to install safety upgrades beyond what is required by law, which would reduce quiet-zone costs for local governments. The company is installing the safety features concurrently with track construction.

All Aboard Florida has offered Treasure Coast governments the same deal, but some local officials are hesitant to accept the funding: Local governments worry they would be responsible for quiet zones’ future maintenance and possibly liable for accidents within them.

New grade-crossing agreements, recently sent out by All Aboard Florida, seem to confirm those fears. The agreements require local governments to “take liability for grade crossings” if they establish quiet zones, officials said at the meeting with the railroad administration.

However, according to the railroad administration, under federal code “there is no ability for AAF to ‘transfer’ liability,” Busha said in a recap of the meeting.

In St. Lucie County, government must “strike a balance” in weighing liability against everyday quality-of-life concerns.

“We are learning more about the liability issues from FRA. If we’re able to work through those issues — which are significant — I would imagine the interest in quiet zones would grow considerably,” Tipton said.

Should local counties and municipalities decide to pursue quiet zones, they would work with their respective metropolitan planning organizations, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council and state and federal officials, said Kim DeLaney, planning council strategy director.

The planning council has contacted the railroad administration’s grade-crossing attorney and plans to set up a teleconference, according to Busha.

Local governments also want All Aboard Florida to provide more detail on the types and locations of the safety upgrades it would fund.

The plan outlined in the final environmental report is more extensive than what is required by railroad administration guidelines for high-speed rail, according to Busha.

“Local governments want to ensure all appropriate costs of grade crossing infrastructure are paid by AAF, with the highest degree of safety infrastructure at grade crossings,” Busha said.

Officials also want to ensure “no costs are inappropriately passed on to local governments,” he said.

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