Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 19, 2015 1:05 p.m.
For at least five years, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) has discussed the creation of a Quiet Zone in the city’s downtown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). The discussion continued at the FBCC’s February 17, 2015 Regular Meeting following Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary’s update on his recent discussion with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to determine conditions, costs and responsibilities for the city in creating such a zone, which would eliminate the need for trains to blow horns at the downtown rail crossings.
City Manager Joe Gerrity reported that city and the railroad representatives would meet within the next few weeks to discuss the matter, along with other issues,before proceeding to engage an engineering firm to determine costs of installing the required signalization.
McCrary reported that utilizing the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Quiet Zone Calculator and the process outlined in 49 CFR Part 222, the City submitted a formal “Notice of Intent to Establish a Quiet Zone” on October 8, 2014. The proposed zone included two (2) crossings at Ash and Centre Streets. Reviewing entities were FRA, FDOT and FCRD. The FRA found the existing crossings to be substandard and ineligible to meet requirements for a Quiet Zone.
First Coast Railroad in its assessment included these findings along with concerns for liability, increased risk of pedestrian conflicts, and the unique conditions of downtown Fernandina Beach.
McCrary presented slides showing the existing conditions at downtown rail crossings and said that the city would have to become “very creative” to meet the physical requirements to install the crossings because of limited space. He said that the city might also consider looking at “quiet times” during which street crossings would be closed. He also said that the use of wayside horns might reduce the noise. Any solutions would involve working with the rail operator, First Coast Railroad.
McCrary also presented sobering cost estimates. He said that a standard rail crossing signalization system costs around $250K, but that the Fernandina Beach situation is more challenging than average. While some grant money may be available for these crossings, the grants require a 50 percent match by the city. That money must be budgeted before the grant can be considered.
An added cost is annual maintenance, which can run $30K per crossing per year.
McCrary expressed railroad liability concerns over existing conditions that would need to be addressed before First Coast Railroad would consider moving forward with creation of a quiet zone. The railroad wants to see major improvements in the way in which the city channels pedestrian traffic across the tracks. The city must demonstrate that it is enhancing pedestrian safety, to include eliminating unimpeded points of access to the railroad tracks. McCrary added that these concerns have been addressed in the existing Front Street Redevelopment Plan.
The next step for the City is to proceed with the creation of a Diagnostic Team, to include City, State and Rail representatives, to assess current conditions, review accident data, and develop a range of feasible options to address the City’s desire to reduce or eliminate train horns in the downtown area.
Commissioner Tim Poynter indicated that the city needs to move quickly so that the project can be included in the upcoming budget preparation. Commissioner Robin Lentz asked for a show of support from the commission, but City Manager Joe Gerrity cautioned that the city first needs to obtain realistic cost estimates.
Commissioners discussed personal observations regarding the quiet zone need as well as the railroad’s concerns about pedestrians on the tracks.
Gerrity assured commissioners that the Alachua Street crossing could be opened without the creation of a quiet zone.
McCrary said that the quiet zone would be a half-mile in length and would encompass all the downtown crossings, including Dade Street, where the intersection is more controlled because of the entrance to the port.
Local citizen Tony Crawford addressed the commission on costs and liability issues. He said, “Railroad accidents don’t injure people – they kill them. … Railroads do not want quiet crossings. That I can flat tell you, because they know that is going to kill somebody. It’s not a guess, it’s not an if, it’s a when. Somebody’s going to get killed and somebody’s going to get sued.” Crawford said that while he was not taking a position, he believed that it was in the best interest of the taxpayers to nail down annual maintenance fees. “If you are not willing to [pay those annual costs], don’t waste anymore time on the issue.”
In response to a suggestion raised by local resident Lynn Williams, McCrary responded the railroad’s position is that horns should be blown regardless of whether the train is moving forward or backing up, even if a trainman is walking along the tracks.
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller asked why the brunt of the cost for creating a quiet zone is not being borne by the end users: the Port of Fernandina and the Rock Tenn mill. Gerrity explained that the railroad owns the tracks and the right of way. The city, not the railroad, is requesting the quiet zone
Poynter asked, “What’s the possibility of just limiting train traffic at night?” He cited language in the port’s master plan that claims that trains do not run at night. Gerrity said that such language does not bind the railroad or the mill. McCrary added that the city can try to reach an agreement on that point with the railroad operator, but otherwise it is outside city control. The language from the current draft port master plan appears below:
In a related but separate presentation, Mike Zaffaroni, chair of the CRA Advisory Board, updated commissioners on his committee’s progress. He advised that work is continuing on updating the CRA plan. In response to a question from Vice Mayor Miller, Zaffaroni prioritized committee concerns as: quiet zone creation, waterfront park, opening the Alachua crossing, and improving infrastructure. He acknowledged that money was a factor in implementing each priority.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.