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Lots of $$$ needed to eliminate train horns
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The Bulletin

It could cost between $1 million and $9.4 million for improvements alone to potentially eliminate train horns at 14 at-grade crossings in Manteca.

And if Manteca wants to eliminate traffic backups from trains blocking crossings the one major arterial considered to be the best choice for a grade separation by building a bridge across the tracks — Airport Way — will cost $22.5 million.

Those numbers are gleaned from cost estimates that are part of a presentation creating a “quiet zone” for railroad traffic passing through the city that is being made to the City Council Tuesday at 7 p.m. by the Lodi-based Pennino Management Group. The council meets at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.

The figures being presented reflect the cost only of actual improvements. It doesn’t include the design, public review and environmental impact costs nor does it factor in increased city liability insurance or ongoing maintenance costs the city would incur.

The actual presentation before the council on Tuesday includes 20 crossings but six of them — French Camp Road, Frontage Road, Castle Road, North Austin Road, and Prescott Road — are not currently in Manteca’s city limits. They are, however, in the city’s sphere of influence that encompasses identified areas likely to be annexed to the city at some point due to growth. The six at-grade crossings are all to the northwest of Manteca and are on tracks that rarely gets train traffic as it is a “local” line that is used only when firms that use rail to move goods are either having boxcars delivered or picked up.

The other 14 are either along the “Fresno” line of the Union Pacific Railroad that runs like a slash mark through Manteca or the north-south line that serves as the western city limits that takes rail traffic over the Altamont Pass.

The $1 million cost assumes Manteca would be able to use non-traversable medians similar to what is found at Industrial Park Drive, South Main Street, North Union Road, and West Louise Avenue. Should those in their present condition pass muster, it would leave 10 at-grade crossings that would cost $100,000 a pop to place medians that vehicles cannot cross. That would peg the “construction only” cost at $1 million.

Should it be determined quad gates — essentially double sets of crossing arms and flashing signals on each side of the tracks are needed instead of where there are currently just one — the cost jumps to $600,000 per crossing or $8.4 million overall.

It is possible that both medians and quad gates would be needed to jump the cost to $9.4 million.

Risk assessment from the standpoint of the city being able to obtain insurance would likely be the biggest driving factor in determining what would be needed at each grade crossing. The presentation being made Tuesday may touch on that as well as risk factors such as heavy pedestrian traffic. There has been a small number of trains versus pedestrian fatalities across the country where investigators believe the person hit had been distracted by using ear buds to listen to music as they walked. Most pedestrian fatalities when a suicide isn’t involved have been individuals who were trying to “beat” trains.

Once the city alters a crossing as a quiet zone they not only assume liability as opposed to the railroad but they also are on the hook for annual upkeep and maintenance costs.

A number of residents over the years have complained about train noise with the most strident being those that bought homes in the past two years along the tracks in a new neighborhood on the northwest corner of the Louise Avenue crossing.

With train traffic expected to increase significantly with double tracking through Manteca for the extension of Altamont Corridor Express service to downtown and south to Ceres by 2023 as well as projected increased UP intermodal traffic, train noise will likely become an even bigger concern to residents. Train whistles that can reach 145 decibels or 35 decibels higher than a jet plane from 100 yards away.

To create an effective quiet zone the city would have to address all train crossings that pass through the city. 

Federal law governs what railroads must do in terms of alerting motorists through the use of train horns.

 The Union Pacific Railroad’s website notes that a locomotive’s horns must be sounded for 15 to 20 seconds under federal law before entering all public railroad crossings The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) required pattern for blowing the horn is two long, one short, and one long sounding horn, repeated as necessary until the locomotive clears the crossing. Locomotive engineers retain the authority to vary this pattern as necessary for crossings in close proximity and are allowed to sound the horn in emergency situations.

The website states “Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public. While the railroad does not endorse quiet zones, it does comply with provisions outlined in the federal law.

“Federal regulations provide public authorities the option to maintain and/or establish quiet zones provided certain supplemental or alternative safety measures are in place and the crossing accident rate meets FRA standards.”

Public authorities are required to guarantee reimbursement to the railroad for all actual costs associated with the installation and maintenance of the railroad improvements required for the quiet zone by means of a project agreement executed by the parties. This may include quiet zone warning devices such as quad gate and medians, wayside horns or both. 

Federal law is written in such a manner that if there is deviation from horn blasts from a moving train to at-crossing horns (wayside signals) then the liability for accidents at the grade shifts from the railroad to the city.

 Besides being significantly more expensive, wayside horns do no eliminate train horns.