3 Colo. towns try to change US train-noise rules

KRISTEN WYATT Associated Press Published:

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) -- Three northern Colorado towns tired of freight train horns blaring day and night are on a mission to change federal train safety policy so they can muffle warning blasts.

Under pressure from Colorado's two Democratic senators and the towns of Fort Collins, Loveland and Windsor, the Federal Railroad Administration has agreed to hold hearings next year on the train-horn rule.

The 2005 regulation requires horns to blow at least 15 seconds in advance of all public grade crossings, unless a town has received a "quiet zone" designation that includes lowered gates and flashing lights at intersections.

In towns like Fort Collins, a university town where development has increased in recent years, there are more people who are exposed to the several minutes of blaring each train makes -- blasts that are about 100 decibels, or as loud as a jackhammer.

"It's absolutely ear-splitting," said Marshall Hannum, who sells bicycles at Lee's Cyclery downtown. "It's so unbelievably loud that if you don't stick your fingers in your ears, it's going to damage your hearing."

The horns, however, also save lives. Fatalities and accidents at train crossings nationwide are down significantly from 2005. The FRA recorded 14,523 "accidents/incidents" at train crossings in 2004. In 2012, that number was 10,906 -- a decline of more than 24 percent.

The FRA allows towns to skirt the train-noise requirements if they apply for "quiet zone" designation and take precautions such as installing gate warning systems with flashing lights.

Fort Collins, Loveland and Windsor insist they either can't afford the upgrades or don't have space for them.

The three towns want to be designated "quiet zones" without taking the required precautions. Other nearby towns, such as Fort Morgan, have paid for new medians and other required upgrades as they seek "quiet zone" designation.

But in Fort Collins, city officials insist the requirements need to be modified.

"It's not going to work here," said Dan Weinheimer, legislative policy manager who has studied having his downtown designated a quiet zone. "The way we'd have to do it, you'd be preventing people from walking and biking, which is just not going to work here."

Colorado even considered rerouting train lines between Denver and Cheyenne. But the idea was rejected after a 2007 study by the Colorado Department of Transportation said rerouting the line through rural northeast Colorado would cost at least $1 billion.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall have appealed to the FRA.

"It's not just a nuisance," Bennet said. Local officials, he said, are "worried it's stifling economic development in the hearts of our communities. Safety is obviously paramount, but we're hoping we can move past a one-size-fits-all solution."

The FRA has rebuffed previous efforts to silence train horns.

Florida passed a 1984 law banning train-whistle noise along the Florida East Coast Railway, which runs 351 miles from the Port of Miami to Jacksonville. Fatalities and accidents rose. In 1993, the FRA required Florida trains to sound their horns again.

The number of collisions returned to pre-whistle ban levels, the FRA said.

An agency spokesman declined to speculate on whether the FRA may be more amenable this time around. FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo declined an interview. He said in a statement the agency wants to make sure any change will be just as safe as the current rule.

Rail companies that trundle through northern Colorado haven't taken a public position. Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the railroad would work with the FRA on any modification.

A decision is likely years away. In the meantime, wine bar owner Howard Brigham, who grew up with Fort Collins' trains, hopes the noise won't stop people from sitting on his patio at D'Vine Bistro, which he relocated in November to a spot a few feet from the tracks.

"Part of Fort Collins' charm is the trains," he said. "It's not the trains rolling by that I mind, it's the blaring train whistles. Safety comes first, but surely there's a way we can be safe and not have this blaring all the time."

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt