Phil Estes, PE, was shocked when USA Today covered his attempts to designate 11 railroad crossings as “quiet zones” under a 2005 Federal Railway Administration (FRA) ruling designed to help communities cope with the ear-splitting, 20-second blasts that train engineers must administer before entering an intersection.
Tucked around the conjunction of three transcontinental rail lines, downtown Olathe, Kan., has a crossing every 600 feet. Every day, 88 trains interrupted business for five hours, prompting major employers — including the local courthouse — to consider relocating.
Assuming that BNSF Railway Co. considered the noise a quality-of-life issue, as he did, Estes quickly learned otherwise.
“Suddenly, we found ourselves in the safety business with the railroad, whether we liked it or not,” says the city's senior project manager. In the two years he spent negotiating Olathe's agreement with BNSF, Estes also learned:
- There's no federal or state funding for safety improvements. Estes built expenditures into the capital budget as if they were a road project.
- The railroad's first choice is to close crossings, an option to which Olathe residents happily agreed — much to Estes' surprise — for three crossings that had minimal traffic. “The public's attitude was, ‘we don't care what you do; just make the noise go away,'” he says.
- The railroad will oppose remediations that meet minimum requirements but don't provide a supplementary safety measure.
- Applying for the quiet zone designation happens after work has been done. Thus, work with all federal, state, county, and city agencies from the very beginning to ensure the public's investment isn't for naught.
- The FRA's free online calculator helps assess the feasibility of applying for quiet zone designation (www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1318).
- Ironically, 80% of train injuries don't even occur at railroad crossings; they happen when people climb fences and cross tracks between designated crossings.
The FRA is a U.S. DOT agency, so the first step is to notify your state DOT, which will put you in touch with the railroad's public projects representative. These entities help assess a community's crossings and options, beginning the journey toward making it a quieter environment in which to live and work. Selling traffic impact fees
Pierce County, Wash., overcomes political resistance to implement a successful program.
It's not news that public works directors often are charged with convincing both their governing bodies and the public of the need to fund infrastructure improvements. But when they get the message across, it's a lesson from which other public works directors can learn.
In Pierce County, Wash. — located south of Seattle — transportation managers identified the challenges associated with the development of traffic impact fee (TIF) programs and successfully articulated them to the county council.
One-time charges for the capital cost of public facilities needed to serve new development, such as roads and intersections, traffic impact fees aren't popular with either governing bodies or developers. Still, the fast-growing urbanized county, whose population is about 800,000, is home to about 1,500 miles of county roads — many of which will be affected by development.
In 2003 the county's public works department floated the idea of a TIF program to the county council, which tabled consideration of the program for many reasons, mainly political: Some council members considered it just another tax; others said it would have a negative affect on economic development and affordable housing.