Committee making progress toward railroad ‘quiet zone’ downtown

The railroad may be an integral part of New Albany’s history but even ardent train lovers are bothered from time to time by the loud train horns that can drown out programs at the courthouse or civic center and make it impossible to carry on business or even a telephone conversation downtown.

Now, it appears that some progress is being made to remedy the situation.

“It’s been on my mind and I have been talking about it a long time,” attorney Bill Rutledge, who has an upstairs law practice in the middle of town almost level with the Burlington-Northern track, said. “I finally asked if the city could do something.”

The “something” would need to be the creation of one or more Federal Railroad Administration-approved “quiet zones.”

Federal regulations require locomotives to sound their horns 15 to 20 seconds before approaching grade crossings. Some communities were able to set local bans prior to the 1980s but an increase in train-vehicle collisions, particularly at night, led the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an order again requiring the sounding of horns.

Since 2005, communities have been able to establish these “quiet zones” where the horns are not sounded unless there is an emergency.

A quiet zone must meet a variety of FRA criteria, however. It must be at least one-half mile long with at least one grade crossing. More important from a local standpoint, each crossing must have a variety of lights, gates and even devices that physically prevent a vehicle from crossing the tracks when a train is approaching or present.

Mayor Tim Kent brought the matter up at the January meeting of the board of aldermen and they agreed to appoint a committee consisting of Rutledge as chairman, along with BNA Bank President Bo Collins, attorney Chandler Rogers and Alderman-at-Large Scott Dunnam.

Rutledge began doing research and learned that while the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad would generally be in charge of establishing and maintaining a quiet zone, the city would have some responsibility and, in fact, the Mississippi Department of Transportation is over every grade crossing in the state, regardless of whether it is on a state road.
“I have primarily been talking with Tim Huya, Manager, Public Projects (for BNSF) from Texas,” Rutledge said. This past week, Huya put together a meeting here including four BNSF representatives, two from MDOT, and Rutledge, Collins and Dunnam (Rogers was out of town).

With extensive discussion, Rutledge said they agreed to focus on three grade crossings for the quiet zone: Moss Hill Drive, Railroad Avenue and Highland Street.

“MDOT committed to placing flashing lights and crossbars at the Moss Hill crossing,” Rutledge said, adding the state agency would shoulder 100 percent of the cost.

But more is needed to meet quiet zone standards.

“There are several ways but only a couple are realistic in price,” he said.

The apparent easier and least expensive is placing a six-inch-high “concrete center median channelization,” which is “not transversable.”

This is essentially a concrete or other lane divider that runs back from the crossing gate 100 feet (or 60 feet with an approved variance). Its purpose is to keep drivers from crossing into the other lane to try to drive around the crossing gates.

The city would have to install this device.

“But that would take care of Moss Hill,” Rutledge said, adding that the crossing he thought would be hardest to deal with may prove to be easiest.

The crossing at Railroad Avenue will need to have similar treatment. It already has lights but not gates, and the channelization device would need to be added, although that should not interfere with traffic on McGill Street or traffic crossing from Highland to the parking area behind City Hall.

Rutledge said the cost for this crossing would be shared by the railroad, city and possibly by MDOT.

“MDOT and the railroad really want to close the Pickens Street crossing,” Rutledge said. “That would open up funding from a lot of sources.”

The Pickens crossing is on a largely-blind curve, despite have lights and gates, and removing it should not inconvenience motorists since the Moss Hill crossing is right down the street by the radio station.

Dealing with the Highland Street crossing would be even more complicated, due to the nature of the intersections on both sides of the tracks.

It has lights, bells and gates already. On the north side of the crossing, adding the channelization divider should be sufficient but that would probably necessitate the closing of the radius turn coming from the museum so that cars would have to turn around the triangular island, going through the intersection by the former service station.

Two alternatives are possible for the south side of the crossing.

One is to place sophisticated highly-directional horns, one pointed down Highland toward town and the other down Central beside the railroad. These horns are as loud as train horns, but can only be heard in a very narrow path and their volume dies away after 100 feet.

The other alternative would be to close Central from the Highland intersection down to the first residence at the bottom of the hill. In that case, one of the channelization dividers on Highland back toward the former bus station should work.

This is all preliminary, however.

“We won’t know the cost for a couple of months,” Rutledge said. “And we don’t know if the city will close Pickens.” This can have considerable impact on the project.

“We will look at the prices, then the alternatives,” he said. “The cheapest may not be the best; we don’t know yet.”

The railroad and the committee think this will work to bring about a quiet downtown but it will take the cooperation from the public and the city, Rutledge said.

“It is going to work and benefit New Albany tremendously if we can get it accepted and there is no reason we can’t,” he said.