The issue of railroad quiet zones in Manteca is finally picking up steam.
The City Council Tuesday agreed to spend up to $10,000 on a consultant to determine ballpark costs for possibly converting one, some, or all of the 14 at-grade Union Pacific Railroad crossings in Manteca to quiet zones that would allow train engineers not to hit their horn as they approach each crossing.
The issue has come up before city leaders at least a half dozen times since the mid-1990s. The difference this time has been the persistence of a buyer of a new home in the 117-home McKenzie Grove neighborhood in the triangle created by Louise Avenue, Airport Way and the tracks that arguably is in the worst location in Manteca in relating to railroad noise.
That’s because the home is at the farthest point on the eastern end of the triangle making up the neighborhood. Trains pass at a roughly 25 degree angle to the home and the nearby Louise Avenue crossing. The Airport Way crossing is on the other edge of the neighborhood. And as Mayor Ben Cantu pointed out the crossings are the last two before the Lathrop “Y” where there are numerous train movements involving trains starting to move and switching direction that require horns to alert other trains and railroad workers.
The homeowner’s persistence — she has been before the council three times — prompted Councilwoman Debby Moorhead to ask staff to schedule a quiet zone expert to give the council an overview of what is involved. Moorhead also has been receiving complaints from her neighbors in southeast Manteca after a large almond orchard was removed and no longer baffling train noise. The noise issue for those residents could be significantly reduced or go away once all of the homes planned for where the orchard once stood are built.
The initial complaints in the mid-1990s came from people living near Central Manteca irked about an uptick in rail traffic that translated into more train horn noises. Those homes are actually closer to the tracks than any in McKenzie Grove. The McKenzie Grove homes are of significantly newer construction including more effective insulation and such that helps to a degree reduce noise issues. The complaints two decades ago centered on not being able to leave their windows open at night in the summer due to train noise.
One of the other times involved a buyer in the Tesoro neighborhood also in Southwest Manteca who noted train noise had become intolerable after he moved into his new home. A sound wall, the four-lane Atherton Drive with median, a wide landscaped bike trail and another sound wall are between his home and the tracks.
Several people over the years that have bought homes in Manteca said they were aware of tracks being nearby and that they were close to tracks in the Bay Area as well. That said they were all surprised about how loud trains were in Manteca.
There are more frequent and faster trains that pass through Manteca given it is on the main south-north line for Union Pacific’s movement of freight through California. UP expect its train traffic to increase in the coming years due to continued growth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles markets as well as the need to move farm products to eastern markets. The San Joaquin Valley produced more than 13 percent of the nation’s food.
The Altamont Corridor Express will also start running six to eight trains weekdays through Manteca starting in 2023.
At the same time Manteca is the only city in the San Joaquin Valley with 14 at-grade crossings — with most of them bunched up. Trains under federal law must sound their horns a set amount of times when they approach crossings.
The most problematic crossings tied into train noise are the 10 on the “Fresno” line that slashes through the middle of Manteca between Airport Way and Austin Road.
Councilman Jose Nuño said he would like to see a possible pilot project come from the information that the city receives from the consultant to test whether it makes sense making a large scale investment in implementing quiet zones — or a large number of crossings. Depending upon what is needed, the council has been told it could cost between $100,000 and $700,000 per crossing to create quiet zones. The improvements could involve a median that can’t be crossed, quad gates (four crossing arms and signals instead of just two with two sets on each side of the tracks) or a combination of the two.
Councilman Gary Singh suggested that not only should the city look into what could possibly be done for existing homes but to develop a policy as well that would have enhanced noise mitigation for any future residential developments in close proximity to the tracks.
“The trains were here first,” Cantu said. “Manteca grew up around the railroad.”
The mayor, who noted he is a railroad enthusiast, grew up near the tracks. And while he said the 5 a.m. train passing through Manteca wakes him up — it happens to be the time he gets up any way — he doesn’t personally have an issue with the trains. But he favored looking into the quiet zone more due to concerns expressed by Manteca residents.
Councilman Dave Breitenbucher pointed out he lives close to the tracks as well in Powers Tract.
“I knew the tracks were there but I didn’t realize how loud they were,” Breitenbucher said.
He noted after a while the trains have become “white noise” and that the sounds don’t bother him.
Breitenbucher happens to have bought the house that Cantu grew up in.
The mayor said as a kid the sounding of the train horn always brought him outside so he could see the trains go by.
City Attorney John Brinton noted there are other costs to cover as well. There would be at least an ongoing cost of $300,000 in annual insurance premiums the city would need to pay. Plus given the city is self-insured meaning they are in a consortium with other cities that has a significantly higher deductible that means they also have to set aside money to cover costs of claims and lawsuits that would result from train versus car crashes before the deductible is met.
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