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You could wait 10 years for Bellingham train horns to be quiet

Upgrades to Bellingham train crossings could take a decade

Bellingham City Council gave city staff the OK to start implementing quiet zones in town in 2014, and since then, two of 12 crossings that need to be upgraded to higher safety standards have been completed.
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Bellingham City Council gave city staff the OK to start implementing quiet zones in town in 2014, and since then, two of 12 crossings that need to be upgraded to higher safety standards have been completed.

Those who find themselves awakened time and time again as passing trains blow their federally mandated horns while crossing Bellingham could have a long wait for a reprieve from the noise.

Bellingham City Council gave city staff the OK to start implementing quiet zones in town in 2014, and since then, two of 12 crossings that need to be upgraded to higher safety standards have been completed.

The first, completed in 2015, was the pedestrian crossing at the north end of Boulevard Park; the second, completed early this July, was the crossing at C Street near Roeder Avenue, long closed to car traffic before the upgrades.

The two projects are examples of the pace and cost that can be expected: one crossing upgrade per year, costing around $500,000 apiece, said Ted Carlson, director of Bellingham Public Works.

With a dozen crossings that need to be upgraded, and only two checked off the list, it could be another decade before train horns are quelled.

Fairhaven first

To get approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to lift the mandatory train blasts at each crossing, the city has laid out two quiet zones, each at least half a mile long: the downtown quiet zone, and the Fairhaven quiet zone.

The next upgrade on the city’s slate is the crossing at Laurel Street on the downtown waterfront, which is expected to be upgraded as the city builds that street in anticipation of future development next year, Carlson said. Design would start this year, with construction in 2017.

After that, staff have proposed designing the vehicle crossing into Boulevard Park to higher standards in late 2017, so it can be upgraded in 2018, because the goal is to get the Fairhaven quiet zone completed first, Carlson said.

“The focus is on Fairhaven because of some of the uncertainty with the (downtown) waterfront,” Carlson said. “Obviously the ultimate goal of the redevelopment is to relocate the rail along the bluff. That could be many years in the future, but it’s more uncertain than Fairhaven, where the crossings are unlikely to change.”

The downtown quiet zone has seven total crossings to upgrade, including the C Street crossing, which was just completed, and the Laurel Street crossing, due for upgrades next year.

5 crossings in Fairhaven quiet zone, one of which has been upgraded, with another scheduled for 2018

7 crossings in downtown quiet zone, one of which has been upgraded, with another scheduled for 2017

If the rail is moved along the bluff downtown, that could eliminate several crossings the city would otherwise have to pay to upgrade in order to get a quiet zone there, Carlson said.

“Now, that may ultimately not happen for a long enough period of time that the city may go upgrade those as well,” he said.

Fairhaven’s zone has five crossings to upgrade, and the only two that the city is responsible for upgrading are at Boulevard Park.

The other three crossings in Fairhaven fall under the Port of Bellingham’s jurisdiction: a private crossing for boat haul-out, the access road to the Alaska Ferry, and the Harris Avenue crossing. The Port is looking at the cost to upgrade them.

Funding

One way to speed up funding and construction of the crossings would be to put a Local Improvement District (LID) in place for those who would benefit from the upgrades.

With an LID, money is essentially raised through a property tax on affected properties.

The Fairhaven and South hill neighborhood associations have told the city they might be interested in an LID. The city of Vancouver, Wash., used this method to pay for some upgrades for quiet zones.

This type of LID would be based on sound, Carlson said, so a sound study would be conducted in the area.

Then, the amount of money that can be raised is based on the expected increase in property values resulting from the upgrades, Carlson said.

“By state law, you cannot assess more than that increase in property value,” Carlson said. “So the challenge of doing an LID is making sure you can assess enough to cover the costs. There are instances where cost is greater than the increase in value to the property owners.”

I get the sense there’s more inertia now and more awareness that these things have some pretty negative impacts.

Gene Shannon, who has worked for more than a decade to get quiet zones in Bellingham

Determining just how far sound travels and who would benefit from the quiet zone will likely be hard to determine, said Gene Shannon, who has been trying to get quiet zones in the city for more than a decade. Shannon and his wife, Connie, own The Fairhaven Village Inn.

“It’s amazing how loud the sound is even 20 blocks away,” Shannon said. “Up on South Hill it’s almost as loud as it is down on the water because sound moves very efficiently up the hill. They would need to measure what the rate is, which is pretty complicated and it costs a lot of money.”

The South Hill group is determined to do what they can to help facilitate the upgrades, Shannon said.

The city also would want to make sure other neighbors support the idea before moving ahead, Carlson said.

Even though it may be years before the quiet zones are in place, Shannon said he was happy to see the city moving ahead with projects.

“I get the sense there’s more inertia now and more awareness that these things have some pretty negative impacts,” Shannon said. “These things are loud. People don’t quite get what 110 decibels is.”

Federal regulations require horns be sounded at every at-grade public rail crossing, with a minimum decibel level of 96, and the maximum at 110. Decibels are on an exponential scale.

“You notice that Amtrak is on the lower end of that,” Shannon said. “It’s a noticeable difference in sound.”

Quiet zones do not completely eliminate train horns, as crews can still use them in emergencies, such as when a vehicle, person or animal is on the tracks. Train crews are also required to sound horns when they start moving from a stop, and in a few other specific situations.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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