It is a frustrating fact of life in Manteca.
Whenever a Union Pacific train slows down to a crawl - or comes to a complete stop - crossing Manteca on a surface street is time intensive at best or impossible at worst.
There are eight at-grade crossings between Austin Road and Airport Way. Should a train block all eight crossings - it happens throughout the year - the only option open to cross Manteca is hop on the freeway and use the 120 Bypass.
And while fire and ambulance stations are dispersed to minimize emergency services getting cut-off by stopped trains there is a growing concern that the expansion of the Union Pacific intermodal truck to train operation on the edge of Northwest Manteca will translate into more - and longer - trains going through Manteca at slow speeds.
The plan is to increase the capacity of the intermodal facility by 2.5 times in the near future
“It’s something we need to be thinking about now,” agreed Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford about an overcrossing.
But there are two big hang-ups - cost and the footprint an underpass or overpass would require.
When Lathrop built the Lathrop Road overcrossing less than 10 years ago, the cost was in excess of $15 million. It was a relatively easy project to pursue as they was no development immediately along the roadway.
That is not the case at the eight Manteca crossings.
Weatherford noted the footprint required for an overcrossing or undercrossing would require the taking of property that is already developed And if it was an overcrossing- the less costly of the two separated crossings to build - it would impact residents in a larger swath as they’d have motorists looking into their back yards.
It is why a previous council abandoned plans in the early 1990s for a separated grade crossing on Center Street.
A decade later a separated crossing on Airport Way was proposed but the city eventually dropped it from a list of projects for future funding due to costs and other pressing road needs.
There is a separated crossing planned as part of the proposed “new” Austin Road interchange envisioned to the south of the present location. But as Weatherford notes, that location “is too far away to do any good for the central part of Manteca.”
City Manager Karen McLaughlin indicated elected leaders have discussed the need for an above or below grade railroad crossing over the years but that is about it.
Train horn noise irks
some Manteca residents
And while traffic tie-ups and impediment to the movement of emergency vehicles are real issues, the council has been approached over the years about the need to build a bridge or underpass of the railroad tracks but to see if they can do something about loud train whistles.
Federal law governs what railroads must do in terms of alerting motorists through the use of train horns.
There is so called “quiet zone” technology where horns at selected crossings are placed on the ground pointed at vehicle level and are activated by passing trains. It directs blasts toward vehicles and not over a wide expanse that can impact nearby homes. Such a system is in use in Roseville on two crossing where trains are going slow in and out of the Union Pacific yards.
McLaughlin said in talks with a Union Pacific representative at a recent League of California Cities gathering, the biggest drawback is liability.
Federal law is written in such a manner that if there is deviation from horn blasts from a moving train to at-crossing horns then the liability for accidents at the grade shifts from the railroad to the city.
The Union Pacific’s website notes that a locomotive’s horns must be sounded for 15 to 20 seconds 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.”
The overall cost per grade can range from $185,000 to $500,000 and up to $10,000 per year for maintenance at each crossing.
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. This may include quiet zone warning devices, wayside horns or both.
It is a frustrating fact of life in Manteca.