By Ian Anderson | Downtown News
Despite another delay, residents of Downtown and Little Italy may be only weeks away from experiencing a pleasure they have rarely known for decades: a quiet night. After years of lobbying, planning, proposals, construction and testing, the railroad corridor passing through central San Diego is scheduled to receive Quiet Zone certification within weeks. While a late spring deadline has come and gone, the city agency overseeing the project now hopes to have the final phase of certification finished by the end of August. It would signal an end to the persistent, ear-piercing late night train whistles that have long impinged upon the quality of life of thousands living within earshot of the train tracks.
Federal safety regulations require a train to sound an audible warning for 15-20 seconds when approaching within a quarter mile of any highway-rail crossing. Because most of the thirteen crossings Downtown intersect at streets less than a quarter mile apart, any train passing through must essentially blast its horn nonstop from Little Italy to the East Village. Consequently, nearby residents and hotel guests have found their sleep disrupted by nightly freight trains, which typically cross town between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued this so-called “Final Rule” in June 2005. From a safety perspective, the policy has been a great success. According to DOT figures, the annual number of collisions at rail crossings has decreased by about a third since the Final Rule went into effect, despite increases in both rail and highway traffic. Related fatalities have likewise plummeted.
However, noise pollution has decidedly risen. The Final Rule dictates the warning horn must range between 96 and 110 decibels from a hundred foot distance, which is roughly equivalent in volume to the sound of a jackhammer at three feet. When sustained, sound at this level is considered damaging to the human ear, and most train companies actually place the horn closer to the rear of the train to protect the conductor’s hearing. According to FRA models, the sound of a 110 dB horn still reaches 74 dB a distance of 4,000 feet. By comparison, the guidelines used by San Diego County to develop local noise ordinances suggest a sustained average of 75 dB “can interfere with speech, disturb sleep and cause annoyance.” This is a premise few city residents would argue.
In fact, the San Diego Downtown Residents Group (SDDRG) has been trying to silence the trains since before the Final Rule was enacted. SDDRG President Gary Smith says the group began seeking ways to implement a whistle ban as early as 1994, when Amtrak only ran four trains in and out of San Diego each day. Currently Amtrak operates up to 22 trains per day, while Coaster commuter service has added 16 more. This increase in rail traffic is the reason the freight trains now run at night. The trolley operates under local guidelines, using a significantly quieter bell warning system.
However, the SDDRG’s efforts to minimize train whistles via local government ultimately proved ineffectual, as city legislation was superceded by federal rule. For more than a decade, local residents were frustrated by a lack of recourse to quiet the whistles. Ironically, the same 2005 Final Rule that exacerbated the problem also finally provided a means to circumvent it.
The rule defines a set of criteria allowing for creation of Quiet Zones; crossings with upgraded safety features allowing them to be exempt from the whistle mandate.
Approximately 500 Quiet Zones have been designated, but San Diego’s will be one of the nation’s largest, and its establishment has proven no simple task. Thirteen different crossings needed to be studied on an intersection-by-intersection basis before the necessary upgrades could be proposed for each one. The crossings in question begin at Laurel St. and continue south, including intersections at Hawthorne, Grape, Cedar, Beech, Ash, Broadway, G St., Market, Front, First and Fifth Ave. Upgrades have included new signals, modified signals, raised medians, additional gates and sight distance improvements. Additionally, G St. has been extended as a one-way from Front St. to Pacific Highway. Upgrades to the crossing at Park Blvd. are expected to be included in the planned Convention Center expansion.
Because several organizations have ownership claims to the trains and tracks, any proposal required the participation and approval of the BNSF Railway, MTS, AMTRAK, San Diego Imperial Valley Railway, North County Transit District and the California Public Utilities Commission, as well as variety of city agencies. Consequently, while traffic studies were conducted as early as September 2005, a Notice of Intent to create a Quiet Zone was not delivered to the FRA until December 2006, and construction did not begin until Fall 2010.
The $20.6 million project has been managed by the San Diego Redevelopment Agency, using funds allocated to its Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) from affected constituents’ property taxes. Even since construction began, frustrations have continued as the projected completion date has been pushed back from January 2012 to June 2012.The CCDC has attributed these delays to late equipment deliveries and traffic considerations that have limited construction activity to weekend days that do not include special events. Though construction is close to being done, the timing of Comic-Con and a couple of Padres home stands have pushed back completion yet again, to the last weekend of July at the soonest.
Once the work has been approved by the City Engineer, a Notice of Quiet Zone Establishment will be issued to the FRA and all vested organizations, which must be dated 21 days prior to the Quiet Zone’s effective date. This means the earliest day this saga could end will be during the third week of August. Whatever the final date turns out to be, it probably won’t be marked by any great celebration; area residents will most likely just sleep through it.
Ian Anderson is an author and reporter, who has published books about e-commerce and the environment, and written articles on food, music, community events and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.