Quiet zones closer for Suffolk

Published 10:39 pm Saturday, July 18, 2009

Residents in three Suffolk neighborhoods are one step closer to life without train whistles.

Suffolk City Council voted Wednesday to identify $65,000 in the city budget for improvements to railroad crossings in several areas in the city. The improvements are needed to establish quiet zones — areas where trains do not blow their whistles when approaching a crossing. The council also voted to authorize applications for quiet zones at the Olde Mill Creek Drive, Shoulders Hill Road and Nansemond Parkway crossings.

The Federal Railway Administration determines if quiet zones can be established in certain locations. Factors in the decision include the number of vehicles the road handles each day, the number of trains coming through each day, the number of tracks, the number of accidents in previous years, and more. Many times, improvements have to be made to the barrier devices that prevent a motorist from driving around the gates in order for the crossing to qualify as a quiet zone.

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At the Olde Mill Creek Crossing, two additional gates will need to be installed so that a motorist cannot drive around the gates and onto the tracks. The improvements will cost around $50,000, said Public Works Director Eric Nielsen.

At a Shoulders Hill Road Crossing, no additional improvements will be needed, Nielsen said, because the crossing already has gates and median separators, a row of poles in the middle of the road. A nearby crossing, however, will need to have median separators installed at a cost of $15,000 to qualify for the quiet zone.

In the downtown area, however, a total of five crossings could cost as much as $2.3 million for four-way flashers and gates, Nielsen said. City staff is evaluating the chance to close the Commerce Street crossing, but that still leaves five other downtown crossings — Liberty, Washington, South Main, Saratoga and Wellons streets. Council did not come to a conclusion on the downtown crossings, but are hoping they can use gates from other crossings to lower the cost.

Nielsen did have some good news related to railroads for the council, however. Council learned that the city was awarded $140,000 form the Rail Safety Improvement Program to connect the stoplight at Main and Prentis streets with the CSX railroad crossing only a few feet from the intersection. Currently, the stoplight can be green even while the gates are down and a train is crossing, because the light is not connected to the railroad crossing. The Federal Railway Administration has agreed with the city that the current situation presents a safety issue, and therefore awarded the money for the city to correct the problem. The job should be done by the end of the year.