AUSTIN (KXAN) - Living along the Union Pacific railroad line in South Austin, people know the sound of train horns all too well. The noisy neighbor is something they have asked the city to silence for years.
In fall 2009, the city first told KXAN about its intention to follow through with a project to create "quiet zones." Now, nearly three years later, there is finally progress, but trains likely will not stop blaring their horns anytime soon.
"We ask for (residents') patience," said Gary Schatz, the city's assistant director of transportation. "It's a long process."
It is a waiting game for the city. Since Union Pacific owns the tracks, the railroad giant sets the schedule -- one where caution is a priority.
The railroad's website says: "Union Pacific believes quiet zones compromise the safety of railroad employees, customers, and the general public."
But Schatz said the absence of the loud warning of an approaching freight train compromises safety.
"It's known that, if the train does not sound its horn at the crossing, the chance of a crash occurring increases 68 percent," he said.
Quiet zone timeline
Union Pacific entered into an initial agreement with the city to begin engineering studies last July for five public crossings in South Austin:
• Matthews Lane
• Stassney Lane
• Banister Lane
• Oltorf Street
• Mary Street
Now, nearly a year later, Union Pacific told KXAN the report is done, and it has delivered the cost estimate to the city.
Union Pacific agreed to begin engineering studies last July to determine what safety upgrades were needed and how much they would cost the city. Raquel Espinoza, a railroad spokeswoman, said that amount is around $800,000 for the five crossings.
The city's transportation department estimated the installation of the new safety equipment would take between six months and a year. That timeframe cannot begin until the city and railroad come to a final agreement on the cost and construction, according Leah Fillion, the city's transportation spokeswoman.
Fillion said the city is currently reviewing the railroad's report, and further details regarding that report would not be available while the two entities are negotiating. With legal and contractual matters, there is no set deadline.
"You hear it. I mean, it's intense," said Yvonne Chavez, visiting her friend who lives near the tracks. "The dogs bark. Everything's awakened by it."
Added Ryan Doherty, who lives nearby: "Sometimes, it seems like a little overkill. They're kind of blasting it for a while."
By law, the Federal Railroad Administration must approve any quiet zone before it takes effect. The city filed a notice of intent in November 2010 and is awaiting a response, which will likely not come until the engineering study is available.
The safety measures required before trains can stop sounding their warnings vary at each crossing but include:
- Potential mode adjustment in the existing constant warning time device
- Extension of the existing gate arms.
- Installation of the constant warning time device.
Duval Street quiet zone
In February 2011, the city began the quiet zone process with Union Pacific for a sixth crossing at Duval Street. However, that crossing is now already a designated quiet zone, because it required only the addition of a median, which was a much faster turnaround. The construction cost about $30,000.
James Bell lives near that crossing and said finding a balance between silence and safety is difficult. While he appreciates fewer train horns in the area (they still sound in an emergency or if someone is on the tracks), he has also seen a few close calls with vehicles near the tracks.
"I've seen cars just screech and stop," Bell said. "As they come around the corner and they finally see the gate, they'll stop really fast. I hope they don't land on that track, and if they do land on that track, I hope they back up quick enough."
Paying for quiet zones
The city said it already likely has enough money from the 2010 bond to pay for the improvements at the South Austin crossings. If the cost estimates are not within the available funds, officials said they will have to modify the project by finding additional funds or reevaluated the scope of the work. Again, Union Pacific said the cost will be around $800,000.
The city has already put $131,000 into the South Austin quiet zone project for staff time, consultant fees, and minor upgrades like roadway modifications. Such modifications were done to reduce the overall cost of the project and also complete some of the work necessary for the quiet zones to be established.
Other railroad projects
Meanwhile, the possibility of two additional quiet zones in Downtown Austin seems bleak. After residents complained about trains sounding their horns at two private crossings – Pressler and Paul Streets – the city and Union Pacific began looking into the matter. Horns are not supposed to sound at private crossings, unless there is an emergency or a safety concern.
Now, Union Pacific says the noise
of horns will continue at those two crossings, after railroad engineers studied the area.
"Horns have been there a long time," said Espinoza. "People have been used to hearing it."
She said a nearby curve in the tracks prevents a plain view of sight between cars and trains, though both crossings dead end. However, an additional concern lies with pedestrians crossing the tracks in this area.
"We are struggling with trespassing farther down the tracks," she added. "It's very dangerous having people crossing there without warning."
Nearby, close to the old Seaholm Power Plant, the railroad and city have been in talks about constructing a fence to prevent people from crossing the tracks there. At this time, the railroad has not said whether such a structure would re-open the door for quiet zones at Pressler and Paul.
Regardless, the city says that project has been delayed by the railroad so it can first make upgrades to the tracks and bridge in that area. Union Pacific was not able to provide an update at this time but plans to get back to KXAN in the near future.
Late Saturday night into early Sunday morning, a light band of freezing drizzle traversed the I-35 corridor eastward. With sub-freezing temperatures, even the light precipitation created major problems.
A 10-year-old was killed while standing outside a vehicle after the child's family was involved in a fender bender, DPS said.
Austin Police are looking for a missing woman.
APD is responding to a 25 vehicle accident near the 5400 block of Ed Bluestein near Thurgood Ave.
A man is dead after being hit by several vehicles in the eastbound lane of Highway 71 Saturday night.
A representative at the Fayette County Sheriff's office said that Fayette County is effectively shut down due to icy conditions.