Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 19, 2015 1:05 p.m.

 

Aerial map of downtown Fernandina Beach with two current rail crossings circled.
Aerial map of downtown Fernandina Beach with two current rail crossings circled.

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.

Mayor Ed Boner talks with CDD Director Adrienne Burke as Deputy Manager Marshall McCrary and City Clerk Caroline best set up quiet zone presentation.
Mayor Ed Boner talks with CDD Director Adrienne Burke as Deputy Manager Marshall McCrary and City Clerk Caroline best set up quiet zone presentation.

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.

Ash Street crossing.  Note  that the roadway takes up almost all land where a signalized crossing would need to be placed.
Ash Street crossing. Note that the roadway takes up almost all land where a signalized crossing would need to be placed.
Centre Street crossing and additional land constraints
Centre Street crossing and additional land constraints

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.

City Clerk Caroline Best records meeting as Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary addresses FBCC.
City Clerk Caroline Best records meeting as Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary addresses FBCC.

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.

DSCN4232Commissioner 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.

Tony Crawford:  Research annual maintenance costs before proceeding.
Tony Crawford: Research annual maintenance costs before proceeding.

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.

DSCN4202Vice 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:

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ohpa2Lentz expressed interest in being included in the upcoming city meeting with the railroad, suggesting that perhaps the meeting could be noticed so that all the commissioners might be able to attend.

Mike Zaffaroni prioritizes CRA projects.
Mike Zaffaroni prioritizes CRA projects.

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.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’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.

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Kathy Gardner -Brown
Kathy Gardner -Brown (@guest_28963)
7 years ago

To Whom It May Concern, I read about the quite zones. I was very , very shocked at this! Why would anyone person in their right mind, try to STOP the TRAINS from blowing their horns when coming near the STREETS down town ???????????????? Are we looking for a law suit ???? For NOT HAVING THE TRAIN HORN SOUND ????
I can not get over this!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So many lives have been saved . From hearing that horn sound! How many will be lost if this QUITE ZONE HAPPENS ???? It will not only show how nuts we are for even thinking of such a thing! I voted many of you in your positions because I thought you all were SMART enough to do your job ! NOW I AM WONDERING IF I WAS MISLEAD !!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT a HAPPY COMMUNITY RESIDENT . This better NOT happen ! Sincerely, Kathy Gardner-Brown

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_28995)
7 years ago

Kathy. I understand what you are saying. As I stated at the last Commission meeting,— it is not if —it’s when —we kill someone. It, however is not like the train just stops blowing the horn. Complex and expensive gating and warning light systems have to be put into place. They have to meet Federal railway standards set up by the FRA ( federal Railroad Administration ) and run about $500,000 per crossing. ( we have as many as 4 crossings to do ). Once they are installed, they are maintained by the local Railroad who then bills the City. The maintenance costs can run as much as $50,000 per crossing. This could mean that the City could be paying as much as $200,000 per year to have them maintained. This cost is determined by the local Railroad who has to inspect and maintain them thus keep them up to Federal standards. There is also an issue of liability when an accident happens. Who gets sued? The Railroad—not if they have maintained the gates up to federal specs. The FRA– nope, hard to sue the Government. At the end of the day it seems the City gets the short end of the stick. My suggestion is to simply get all the numbers with respect to maintenance of the crossings and any increase in liability insurance by using in house City Staff prior to moving one step closer to this project. Our City Manager confirmed that meetings are being set up to get these numbers. This whole idea just may not be cost effective to move forward on. The problem also lies in the fact when you are dealing with the public, they are not as safety conscious as many would like to think. You are dealing with adults, as well as kids of all ages. You are dealing with many of them who have been out celebrating, ( Drunks ) many who are on legal or illegal drugs that can impair their ability to act in a safe manor, and many of them who have been brought up to listen for a train horn as a warning sound ( no horn –no worries ) Most Railroads don’t want quite zones—WHY—-simple, this is their profession, they live this everyday and know only no good will come from them. The argument can be made that if installed it will attract condos to be built by the river. That may be true, but so far we have been trying to do a waterfront park for about 20 years and still haven’t planted a tree. How long do you think it will take for us to allow someone to build a condo complex down there and how many will get killed before that happens?

Robert Prager
Robert Prager (@guest_29048)
7 years ago

I did a little web research. Not surprisingly, in most cases, if the author was pro quiet zone they are safe, if opposed they are extremely dangerous. Then I discovered a report from the Federal Railroad Administration presented at the 2014 Global Level Crossing Safety & Trespass Prevention Symposium in Urbana, IL titled, “Analysis of Safety at Quiet Zones” by Ron Reis, http://railtec.illinois.edu/GLXS/presentations/C/11C2-GLXS2014-1084-RIES.pdf . The presentation concludes “No significant difference in collisions before and after the establishment of quiet zones”

Also please remember that in a Quiet Zone the train does not sound its horn but there are still signal bells that ring at the crossing and there can be wayside horns that are directed at the crossing.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_29080)
7 years ago

Robert, your 100% right with your facts. I just think that the expense of the installation, maintenance, and liability needs to be researched by the City ( in house) before we move ahead with this project. If we can afford it they need to do as they see fit. If we can’t, lets drop it and move on. The FRA as you said do studies. I read the above mentioned study. I didn’t see any reference to pedestrian traffic on any of it. Many quite zones are located in areas where pedestrian traffic is much lighter than we have in Downtown Fernandina. The Rail Roads in general are opposed to them as they know what the results will be. We have a town that has far more folks crossing the tracks to get to our attractions and our restaurants. Every person who crosses the track is a potential accident, the more people, the higher the accident percentage. I can tell you from experience, bells and whistles and even horns and gates are not a cure all for the prevention of Rail Road accidents. Most RR accidents occur when all the safety items are in place and working. They occur for one simple reason—humans. Not just drunk humans, but perfectly sober humans who for whatever reason think they can beat the train or just don’t hear the warnings. I know that sounds hard to believe, but it is a sad fact. I have seen it and witnessed the results. The fact still remains –do the homework, get the numbers, see if is affordable, and go from there. I would like to say I really don’t have an opinion, but honesty prevents this, as I said it’s not (if ) but (when)

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_29100)
7 years ago

Kathy, to answer your main question, the reason for the request for the quiet zone is to improve the quality of life for residents living near the crossings. While there are few residents currently the Hampton Inn is located next to the tracks. Additionally, most of the proposed plans for development along Front and Second Street have had a residential component and the train horns have also been an issue. While the Port and Rock Tenn have indicated that trains do not operate after 9pm or before 7am they have the ability to modify that schedule as their operations require and the City has no authority to prevent such changes.
Tony, while I share your concern about the additional safety issue, with the considerable signaling requirement to address vehicular and pedestrian intrustion someone would really have to be “out of it” to wander or bypass the signalling. I think the wayside horns probably represent the best alternative as they concentrate the sound toward the motorists/pedestrians but at a minimum 92db, they still represent a noise issue during nighttime hours. The limited space on Front Street is going to really restrict gating options.
I think the financial estimates are really going to impact the viability of this project as the initial cost as well as the ongoing maintenance cost as noted by noted are likely to be significant.
There is a great primer on Quiet Zones at http://trimet.org/pdfs/pm/Quiet_Zone_Presentation_April2009.pdf It is a little dated so there may have been some regulatory changes but overall I think is does a great job of presenting the options.
The official requirements can be found at the Federal Railroad Administration website at http://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0104

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_29150)
7 years ago

Dave, I agree on many of your points, but you are dead wrong on one. You stated a person would really have to be ” out of it ” to wander past a signal. Sorry, that just isn”t true. I have been involved in too many of these incidents to even entertain that statement. In 2015 as per the FRA there were 2000 rail/ vehicle collisions—251 deaths, and 929 injuries at crossings. Many of these took place at crossings with no pedestrian traffic to speak of, unlike the situation we have downtown. Many of these were alcohol related but most are just everyday people who just thought they could beat the train. These folks that are run over are mom’s and dad’s and kids who just aren’t paying attention, they are not ” out of it. ” You can relate it to how people drive and walk and text. At the end of the day, I am thinking this is just going to be too expensive to work. Personally the folks that built the Hampton Inn knew the RR was there before a shovel went into the ground. Kind of like buying a home near the airport then coming to the City with noise complaints. I understand the concern about residential interests with respect to noise, but I keep thinking the City has been trying to build a park there for about 20 years and to date we haven’t planted a tree. That being said, what do you think the chances are condo’s would be allowed in that area. I am not sure the taxpayers are willing to foot this kind of an expense for future residential use.

Lou Goldman
Lou Goldman(@lgoldmngmail-com)
7 years ago

” While the Port and Rock Tenn have indicated that trains do not operate after 9pm or before 7am ” If this statement is true then why do I hear the horns at 5 AM in the morning?

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_29268)
7 years ago

Lou, my best guess is that trains aren’t coming on property before 7 am, but that there is a certain amount of Yard switching going on. Also any schedule of train movement is subject to change depending on many factors.

Julie bledsoe
Julie bledsoe (@guest_30453)
7 years ago

I am very thankful for the train horn! This past weekend my friends and I traveled to your area, we were coming down to the end of Centre st. and we were getting ready to cross the road to see the river, when we heard the train blow we looked up and the train bar was coming down on our car! I barely had any time to move the car backwards. It was almost dark and we did not realize there was a train track in front of us. We were getting together for our 40 years of knowing each other. there was no alcohol or drugs involved! This whole incident nearly scared us to death!

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