A four-year effort to muzzle trains as they rumble through downtown Longmont neighborhoods has been derailed by a tangle of bureaucratic red tape and negotiations with one of the largest freight railroads in the United States.
The city council in 2018 authorized the establishment of “quiet zones'' in Longmont, which directs train operators from sounding their horns when approaching public highway-rail grade crossings. Train noise interrupts sleep and daily life for millions of Americans and drives people from their communities, according to the advocacy group Noise Free America.
Cities establishing quiet zones have to mitigate the risk caused by the absence of a horn. They may include rebuilding crossing arms, curbs and medians to keep vehicles from going around gates and improving circuitry at the crossing arms. The city in 2019 estimated establishing quiet zones at 15 railroad crossings would cost more than $8 million.
The city then got a $4 million federal matching grant in 2020 to begin constructing 14 of 17 quiet zones. Thus far, little or no progress has been made, Richard Jacobi said. Jacobi is a resident of the Historic Eastside Neighborhood of Longmont and a proponent of quiet zones.
“... A shovel has not hit the ground, not a drop of concrete has been poured. FRUSTRATING.” Jacobi said via email.
One of the biggest roadblocks is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, which owns the tracks running through Longmont, Jacobi said. The company has no inherent motivation to get quiet zones implemented in the city. This is while city planners and engineers appear eager to get rolling on the project, he said.
“And we can’t force them (the railroad) to do this on our schedule,” Jacobi said. “Unfortunately, they hold all the cards — the old adage about the hierarchy of laws, there’s city ordinances, which are overridden by state statutes; these can be overridden by federal laws which are overridden by God.”
“And above all of this is the railroads,” he said.
BNSF has not responded to a request for comment.
Downtown Longmont residents, meanwhile, can look forward to another summer of train horns blaring at unpredictable times throughout the night, Jacobi said. “Especially if we cool our homes (the green efficient way) by opening windows at night, as most of us do in Old Town,” he said.
The city is working to finalize the $4 million grant agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration, Josh Sherman, the city’s senior civil engineer, said via email. The city has also been working on final design plans for the project.
In all, Sherman said, there are 17 railroad crossings that require improvements for the city’s quiet zone project, with 14 included in the federal grant.
The remaining crossings are being completed by the city under separate projects. Improvements at Emery Street are complete, Sherman said.
The quiet zone project, he adds, will be completed in four design and construction packages.
- Package #1 (Year 1) includes Third Avenue, Longs Peak Avenue, Ninth Avenue and 17th Avenue.
- Package #2 (Year 2) includes Fourth Avenue, Sixth Avenue, and 21st Avenue.
- Package #3 (Year 3) Main Street, Coffman Street, Terry Street and Mountain View Avenue.
- Package #4 (Year 4) includes State Highway 66, Hover Street and Fifth Avenue.
Each crossing requires BNSF Railway, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Public Utilities (PUC) Commission approval, Sherman said. Each crossing also requires a separate Construction and Maintenance (C&M) agreement with the railroad.
Package #1 design plans have been reviewed and approved by BNSF; those plans are also being packaged for submission to the FRA and PUC for review and approval, Sherman said.
To date, the city has received a draft C&M agreement from the railroad for 17th and Third Avenues. Package #2 design plans have been submitted to BNSF for final review and approval. Package #3 design plans have been submitted to BNSF for initial review. Package #4 plans are in preliminary design, Sherman said.
The city hopes to get Package #1 finalized and ready for construction later this year, Sherman said. The other three package plans would follow in consecutive years, he said.
The city has hired the law firm of Kissinger & Fellman as special counsel for the upcoming PUC application for the proposed Boston Avenue cross, Sherman said. “Special counsel would be available for quiet zones, if needed, but their support is not anticipated at this time,” he said.