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City aims to bring peace, quiet to downtown

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The next chapter of a 20-year saga

Everybody needs a little peace and quiet now and then. Especially near railroad tracks.

That’s not as simple as it seems. Federal law requires railroad engineers to blast their horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings to warn anyone nearby that they’re coming. It helps prevent accidents with cars, pedestrians and animals, but doesn’t do much for neighborhood tranquility.

But there’s hope: local governments can apply for “quiet zones” at street-level crossings. To get approved, they must first mitigate the increased risk caused by the absence of a horn.

The city has hired Wilson and Co. to do just that, and to guide the city through the quiet zone application process.

“It’s just one step closer to a quiet zone that we’ve been after for 20 years,” Mayor Louie Bonaguidi said during the July 26 city council meeting.

The quiet zone, which must be at least a half-mile long, is a big deal for future plans in the area, especially a new library and potential redevelopment of the former Alpine Lumber site into a retail and restaurant complex.

“The quiet zone would affect the entire downtown area, including any future development,” Planning and Development Director Clyde  Strain said. “The goal is to minimize the horn noise downtown for all the businesses.”

The crossing improvements would include railings to corral pedestrians through the sidewalk crossings and prevent them from straying onto the tracks. The railings would have emergency exit gates with kick plates to meet ADA guidelines.

“As pedestrians come to the crossing, they have nowhere else to go but through the channelized gates,” consultant John Rangel said.

Rangel said that as the city gets further into the project, they will decide whether the current gates need to be moved and whether or not the sidewalk or roadways needs widened, or a median needs to be added.

Since the 1970s there have been an average of one railroad-pedestrian collision per year at the Second Street and Third Street crossings, according to city statistics; about 60% of them were at the Third Street crossing.

The safety improvements have to be separated from the quiet zone application for funding purposes, but are necessary to qualify.

“It’s a pretty detailed and complicated process and [Wilson & Co. has] done this before,” Strain said. “It will bring the project through the process of regulatory approval and permitting by the Public Utilities Commission and Federal Railroad Administration.”

That process includes a plan for safety improvements, detailed in a notice of intent to pursue an FRA quiet zone.

The fact that one side is a city road and the other is a state road doesn’t help; it means more parties have to sign off on the project. Ustick said the city has been working with the New Mexico Department of Transportation on this issue for many years.

By Holly J. Wagner
Sun Correspondent