Friday, May 26, 2006 | There are toots and there are toots.
There are the three shrill bursts of the train’s horn – a warning blast to any traffic or pedestrians still negotiating the next intersection. And then there are the toots that seem to go on forever; the long wailing sounds that split the night like the screech of a coyote. Those are the toots Mike Bradley can’t stand.
“There’s some engineers and they just toot the horn, toot the horn, toot the horn, and they’re on their way, but there are others who you can hear are just doing it to abuse it,” said Bradley, who lives in a condo in CityFront Terrace, overlooking one of downtown San Diego’s 13 rail intersections.
While many downtown residents say that the warning signals required of the trains that pass through San Diego’s urban core are unnecessary and excessively loud, the toots are here to stay for at least another year.
The Center City Development Corp. originally announced last year that an effort to turn downtown San Diego into a so-called quiet zone – where horn blasts are replaced by improved safety measures at railway intersections – would be completed by next month. But the downtown redevelopment agency says that effort has been met with resistance by railway companies and has also been far more complicated than the agency first realized.
As a result, the June deadline has been quietly augmented by another 12 months. CCDC now hopes to make downtown horn-free by summer 2007 – a delay that frustrates some downtown residents.
“It’s disappointing, the horns are one of the major aggravations of living downtown,” said Dave McQuade, president of the homeowners’ association at The Grande at Santa Fe Place, a twin tower condo development in the Columbia District.
When downtown San Diego does eventually become a quiet zone, it will be one of the first cities in the country to benefit from new rules introduced by the Federal Railroad Administration last June. The new guidelines, which are codified in legislation called the Use of Locomotive Horns Final Rule, offer cities the option of banning horns within a certain area as long as various other steps are taken to make the railway intersections in that zone safer for traffic and pedestrians crossing the railway tracks.
The task of setting up downtown’s quiet zone – which is estimated to cost at least $6 million – falls to John Anderson, a senior project manager of public works at CCDC. In order to fulfill the requirements of a quiet zone, CCDC must enact one of four safety enhancements at its downtown junctions of road and rail.
Anderson said the process has been far more complicated that he originally expected. A big part of the problem, he said, is that CCDC has had to work with four different entities that run trains or trolleys on the tracks in downtown. None of those companies really want the quiet zone to go ahead, he said, so getting the operation moving has been an uphill battle.
“We really don’t have any true partners,” Anderson said. “That makes it kind of tough, because we have to constantly push the project forward.”
That’s why Anderson says the June 2006 deadline was always “optimistic.” He said that when the original timeline for the project was put in place last summer, nobody at the CCDC could foresee how many obstacles lay ahead. In addition to the partnership problems, he said, CCDC is trying something that doesn’t have much precedence.
Anderson said CCDC had to work with the transit companies to establish rules for liability for any future accidents. They also had to write up agreements for who will build and maintain the new safety measures, all of which had to be designed from scratch.
CCDC can chose to do make one of the following enhancements to comply with quiet zone requirements:
- Close down the traffic intersection. Anderson said that’s not an option for any of the intersections in downtown, because the CCDC wants to preserve traffic flow and access as much as it can.
- Turn a two-way street into a one-way street. That’s what they plan to do with the railway intersection at G Street and Kettner Boulevard, and Anderson said his team’s been working for almost a year to design a one-way system for that particular intersection.
- Two-way streets that cross the railway can be given a median – usually simply a strip of concrete a few feet wide that separates the two lanes. Anderson said that medians have been statistically proven by the FRA to be effective in reducing accidents and casualties at railway intersections. The theory is that the medians stop vehicles from rushing to overtake slow-moving vehicles illegally by crossing across into the incoming lane. This type of mediation is planned for all of downtown’s two-way intersections.
- Intersections can have exit gates installed. These gates act in addition to the gates that come down across a lane as it leads into an intersection and effectively close off the intersection entirely to traffic. Anderson said these gates will also be installed in all of downtown’s two-way intersections.
Currently, CCDC has established what measures it is going to take to secure all the intersections downtown to the standards required for the quiet zone to be recognized by the FRA. Anderson said he is now in negotiations over who will build each of the safety improvements and which of the various players involved will be responsible for their maintenance.
That should take up until the end of this year, Anderson said, and he hopes to be breaking ground on the improvements by summer 2007.
Jeff Herscovitz hopes that deadline is more concrete than the last. Herscovitz, who is president of the homeowners’ association at CityFront Terrace, said he has already had owners sell up and leave the building because of the excessive noise from the train tracks. He also wonders why the new deadline wasn’t communicated to downtown residents.
“The people who suffer are going to be extremely disappointed after one year – and why are we just finding our now?” he said.
For the next 12 months, Bradley said he wants railway engineers who pass through downtown to be held accountable for the noise their horns make. There used to be a phone number that angry residents could call and report excessively enthusiastic tooting to the FRA, but a few weeks ago, that line was disconnected, he said.
“I guess,” Bradley said, “they just got one too many complaints.”
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