Concept of county train ‘quiet zone’ falls on deaf ears


County residents who live near the busier-than-ever Florida East Coast Railway tracks will get no relief from the freight- and passenger-train horns that can be heard throughout the day and are especially disturbing during the late-night and early-morning hours.

Putting public safety above residents’ quality of life, the County Commission last week decided to not pursue the establishment of a countywide “quiet zone,” which would have allowed train operators to blow their horns only at certain times of day or in emergency situations.

No vote was taken, but none of the five commissioners spoke in favor of the proposal.

Three of them – Deryl Loar, Joe Flescher and Laura Moss – voiced strong opposition.

“I’m not convinced the quiet zones would be as safe,” Moss said at the commission meeting two Tuesdays ago, when she dismissed the argument that the county could mitigate safety concerns by posting signs warning motorists and pedestrians that approaching trains might not blow their horns.

“Especially at night,” she added, expressing doubt that the county can trust that all drivers will heed, or even notice, the signs in the dark.

Flescher, now serving his fifth term on the commission, questioned the wisdom in removing a safety measure that could be the difference between life and death – specifically, when the gates at railroad crossings, which are mechanical devices, fail to function properly.

“When they fail,” he asked, “what other mechanism does an individual have (in those situations) to know the train is coming, other than that bright light coming down the railway at night?”

It was Loar, though, who urged the commission to not entertain any further consideration of the quiet zone as a remedy for the inconvenience stemming from train-horn noise.

Loar did so after Federal Railroad Administration safety inspector Rory Newton, who is based in Florida and specializes in assisting communities seeking quiet zones, told the commissioners he would not recommend the county pursue one.

“I personally wouldn’t do it if I were a member of the community,” Newton said, although he quickly added that the train horns are “really loud” and he understood the quality-of-life issues people who live near the railroad tracks endure.

Those reasons made it difficult to argue against the quiet zones, he said, “but safety, to me, is more important.”

It was in response to Loar’s questioning, however, that Newton handed the commissioners the expert testimony they needed to kill the quiet-zone proposal, at least for the foreseeable future.

“A quiet zone is not viewed as a safety improvement,” he said. “It is a degradation of the safety at a grade crossing.”

Upon hearing those words, which raised liability issues for the county in the event a tragedy occurred as a result of an absence of train horns, Loar said he could not support the creation of a quiet zone “if it went to a vote,” and he saw no reason to continue the discussion.

County Traffic Engineer Erik Ferguson put the issue on the commission’s meeting agenda to get guidance as to whether staff should continue to talk to the cities of Vero Beach and Sebastian, as well as the Florida Department of Transportation, about pursuing a countywide quiet zone.

FDOT governs the railroad crossings on State Road 60.

Ferguson said complaints from county residents about train-horn noise have increased since September, when Brightline began high-speed passenger service between West Palm Beach to Orlando.

In his report to the commissioners, Ferguson wrote that an average of 53 trains – 32 serving Brightline passengers, 21 carrying freight for the FEC Railway – travel through the county each day.

Federal regulations, known as the “Train Horn Rule,” require locomotives to sound a horn 15 to 20 seconds before entering a grade crossing and no more than a quarter-mile in advance, he continued, adding that the horns must have a decibel level between 96 and 110.

The horns are sounded at all 32 railroad crossings in the county.

The county has an ordinance that bans train horns from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but the law is not enforceable because it was pre-empted by a federal regulation in 2005.

However, Ferguson wrote in his report that the county’s federal risk index was low enough to qualify for a self-designated countywide quiet zone, meaning the commission could avoid the lengthy formal application process in its quest for FRA approval.

Even so, the process to establish the quiet zone could take up to six months, he added.

The commissioners, if they wanted to install a quiet zone, merely needed to decide on its duration – 24 hours or only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Federal regulations require quiet zones to be at least a half-mile in length and include every crossing within the designated area.

Newton said the FRA has recommended the communities impacted by the Brightline-spawned increase in train-horn noise wait a year before deciding whether to seek quiet zones.

Martin County already has decided to wait.

“Commissioners have gotten email complaints about the horns, and I would hope that in the next few months that, somehow, we get acclimated to them,” Loar said, noting that freight trains have been chugging through the county for more than 100 years.

“I’m less than a mile from the train tracks and I hear them all the time,” he added. “I guess I’m immune to them.”

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