FEDERAL LAW REQUIRES THAT CITIZENS PAY FOR QUIET ZONES TO PROTECT THEMSELVES FROM RAILROADS - MAYBE TIME FOR A CHANGE IN LAW?

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Friday, April 24, 2015 - 7:15am

Lisa Broadt - TCPalm

Elected officials will face tough choices, with multimillion consequences, when quiet-zone discussions move from northern Palm Beach County into Martin County and up the Treasure Coast.

For months, local governments have said they would reject any funding offered by All Aboard Florida to help build quiet zones along the Miami-to-Orlando corridor where it plans to run 32 high-speed trains a day.

In Palm Beach and Broward counties, All Aboard Florida has offered to go beyond federally-required track upgrades, and do work that would lay the foundation for quiet zones, stretches of track where safety infrastructure such as additional gates and lights negates the need for a train to sound its horn.

On the Treasure Coast, however, most officials have said they would rather forgo quiet zones than risk mixing the public’s money with private dollars from All Aboard Florida. Indian River and Martin counties are attempting to shut down the railroad through legal action.

“That is absolutely the responsibility of All Aboard Florida,” Martin County Commissioner Anne Scott said Wednesday of any proposed quiet zones. “If they think safety is our problem, they are as wrong as wrong can be.”

But accepting All Aboard Florida money would have benefits, and some local governments could be warming to a partnership, or at least to discussing a partnership.

All Aboard Florida investments in crossings — while not specifically dedicated to quiet zones — would encompass much of the quiet-zone requirements, reducing local costs significantly, railroad officials have said.

In Broward and Palm Beach counties, local officials took advantage of the “unique private-public partnership” to “leverage the investment” from All Aboard Florida and reduce quiet-zone costs at least 20 percent, according to the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization.

All Aboard Florida over the last three weeks has provided Treasure Coast governments with nearly-complete engineering plans that paint a clearer picture of upcoming changes to crossings, medians and turn lanes, and clarify what additional work would be needed for quiet zones.

This concrete information, as well as increased public pressure to quiet the blaring horns — noise complaints have skyrocketed since December when Florida East Coast Railway added new locomotives to its fleet — may influence the future of quiet zones on the Treasure Coast.

Stuart was one of the first municipalities to meet with All Aboard Florida engineers on the updated plans, and last week City Manger Paul Nicoletti said the city is “satisfied” with changes in the plans and may pursue quiet zones.

So far, however, All Aboard Florida “has received no clear indication from any city that it intends to pursue a quiet zone at this time,” according to Lynn Martenstein, company spokeswoman. If Stuart were to seek a quiet zone, its next step would be using a Federal Railroad Administration computer model to determine how much safer its crossings must become, she explained.

Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County could be close behind, though it’s too early to make any firm decisions, officials say.

“There are 235 sheets of plans, and staff just started reviewing the drawings and preparing a list of comments,” Don West, St. Lucie County public-works director, said. “Our main focus right now is determining how the project would impact county infrastructure.”

Fort Pierce also is undecided, according to Jack Andrews, engineer.

“Currently no decision has been reached,” Andrews said. “I feel it would be beneficial for the city and St. Lucie County to partner through the (Transportation Planning Organization) to jointly seek a consensus and possible funding solutions.” Once Fort Pierce has reviewed the updated plans, city staff will invite All Aboard Florida to make a presentation to the City Commission, he said.

Vero Beach has not been contacted about the 90-percent designs, and “no funding is under consideration at this time,” according to Monte Falls, public works director.

Two local governments remain unchanged in their approaches to quiet zones: Sebastian for more than a year has supported quiet zones, and just needs All Aboard Florida’s engineering plans to move forward with the initial phase, according to Frank Watanabe, city engineer, while Martin County maintains that all safety improvements should be funded by the railroad.

Quiet zones are a ruse to foist crossing liability onto Martin County, saddling the county with increased — and permanent — responsibility, according to Terry Rauth, deputy county engineer.

“This is an unbelievably dangerous project through a densely populated area,” Martin County Commissioner Scott added. “All Aboard Florida officials have said previously that a local funding deal likely would be similar to one reached with communities to the south, such as the Hallandale Beach-to-West Palm Beach quiet zone announced in August, which is to be funded with $60 million from All Aboard Florida and $10.8 million from the Palm Beach and Broward county transportation-planning organizations.

In one of the lowest-cost scenarios — basic gate upgrades — work on the Treasure Coast could cost about $3.6 million, according to a Federal Railroad Administration modeling program. But it’s likely costs would be higher, and a more expensive scenario — with lights and vehicle-detection technology at some gates — could raise the price tag to almost $18 million, according to the program.

Local governments that pursue quiet zones would work collaboratively with metropolitan planning organizations, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, according to Kim DeLaney, planning council strategy director.

“Ultimately, as prescribed by federal law, each local government will decide whether to establish quiet zones,” DeLaney said.

The federal government assigns a risk rating to all track crossings. The lower the risk, the safer the crossing. Collectively, crossings must have average risk rating below 15,424 to qualify as quiet zones. About 88 percent of the Treasure Coast’s crossings exceed that threshold.

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