As Martin County continues its review of the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA's) Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the All Aboard Florida (AAF) passenger rail project and the many deficiencies and flaws within the 646-page document, the costs, and potential benefits, of creating "Quiet Zones" along the rail corridor have been receiving greater attention in the media.
There is unnecessary confusion, however, as to what a "Quiet Zone" is and what its impact will be on safety, cost, liability and quality of life. First, so-called "Quiet Zones" do not necessarily make the rail corridor -- quiet. According to their own Guide to the Quiet Zone Establishment Process, the FRA states that, "quiet zone regulations ... do not eliminate the use of locomotive bells at crossings. A more appropriate description of a designated quiet zone would be (to call it) a 'reduced train horn area.'"
Martin County does not need to request "Quiet Zones" at this time because AAF is federally mandated to construct "Sealed Corridor" improvements that are more stringent than "Quiet Zone" safety measures; AAF has committed to installing wayside horns to mitigate noise impacts; and requesting a "Quiet Zone" would shift liability from AAF to the County.
If Martin County initiated the process of requesting quiet zones at this time, the County would have to pay for the costs of supplemental or alternative safety measures. The cost for these safety measures is approximately $400,000 per crossing with an estimated 27 crossings that may be in need of safety improvements.
These infrastructure improvements include options such as: medians on one or both sides of the tracks to prevent a motorist from driving around a lowered gate; a four-quadrant gate system to block all lanes of highway traffic; converting a two-way street into a one-way street; permanent closure of a rail crossing to highway traffic; or use of "wayside" horns at the rail crossing. In the case of wayside horn installation, the horns are blown out towards the roadways to alert drivers and pedestrians to the presence of oncoming trains. If you live in the "Quiet Zone" (or reduced train horn area) you may receive some noise relief, but if you live near the new wayside horns, the noise pollution could be worse.
The FEIS indicates that AAF has committed to installing wayside horns and then uses this commitment to claim that the project will provide reduced noise levels. The problem with this claim is that "Quiet Zones" can only be requested by a public entity. AAF is putting pressure on the County to make the request so that they can validate this claim.
Beyond the cost of these enhancements is the equally serious issue of adding liability risk to the County's taxpayers. If Martin County were to request a Quiet Zone now or in the future, it is our understanding that the County would have to sign a hold harmless agreement with the railroad that puts the legal and financial burden and responsibility on Martin County should any accident occur because a horn was not sounded.
AAF is federally required to build safer "Sealed Corridors" at their own expense.
It also appears that even if "Quiet Zones" make sense, federal railroad safety policy calls for AAF to provide a safer alternative called a "Sealed Corridor Improvement."
With trains that are expected to speed through Martin County at over 100 mph in many areas, the FRA is requiring AAF to build "Sealed Corridor Improvements" which are more stringent and safer than "Quiet Zone Improvements." Both Sealed Corridors and Quiet Zones require four-quadrant gates to block all lanes of vehicular travel, however, two gates with 100-foot medians to separate traffic may be used as a Sealed Corridor Improvement. Quiet Zones only require 60-foot medians which makes it easier for vehicles to drive around the barrier and is less safe.
Martin County can request Quiet Zones at any time in the future and avoid the cost of paying for and maintaining those safety infrastructure enhancements because they will have already been built as a federal requirement by AAF - at their own expense.
Fundamental Flaws in the FEIS. County Exploring It's Options.
Martin County continues its review of the FRA's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) which ignored and failed to address the myriad of public safety, navigation, environmental, fiscal and other concerns that Martin County, other local governments, and community groups such as Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL) have been vocally and consistently communicating and presenting to the FRA throughout the public review process.
The FEIS did not take into account the painstaking expert analyses that have been conducted and submitted over the course of the last year by reputable experts in their respective fields -, to archaeological, historic and natural resources, to rail safety and economic impacts.
AAF has enormous political power and financial resources. The U.S. Department of Transportation has cooperated with AAF to create a situation that makes it more difficult for the County and other like-minded parties to promptly challenge the FEIS as a whole and exercise our right to challenge the findings and the process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
So, what does all of this mean for Martin County? It means that our fight against AAF is not over. There are options currently being explored to ensure that this ill-conceived passenger rail project and related increase in freight rail traffic does not harm Treasure Coast communities and the residents who live here.
For more resources on Martin County's fight against All Aboard Florida, including presentations, studies, letters of concern to state and federal agencies and more, visit www.martin.fl.us/hottopics/AllAboardFlorida.