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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Marinette Residents Seek Quiet from Train Whistles

The only discussion during Public Comment time at the start of the Marinette City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2 was in reference to proposed “quiet zones” in which blowing of train whistles would be prohibited in some or all parts of the city, as requested on petitions signed by hundreds of city residents. The gentleman reminded the Council that train whistles are intended to aid in the safety of traffic crossing railroad tracks.

Later in the meeting, however, the council initiated the process of establishing a train horn quiet zone by a unanimous vote authorizing an exploratory study. No money is to be spent at this point. The issue came up again at the Civic Affairs, Traffic and Lights and Cemetery Committee meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 8, where it had started a month earlier in response to a petition presented by Betsy Jaeger of 1939 Stephenson Street.

At the Sept. 10 committee meeting, Jaeger, speaking on behalf of a dozen citizens present in favor of the quiet zone, stated most of the train traffic is between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and “it seems within the last three years the horns have been getting louder and louder.” She and other residents had solicited petitions in support of the city implementing a quiet zone.

The committee was advised City Attorney Jonathan Sbar and Public Works Director Brian Miller had talked with a representative from the Federal Railroad Authority. They said the quiet zone was possible, but the process could take 18 to 24 months and many steps would have to take place. The committee asked Miller to determine the cost for the gates and if there were any grants that could be used to defray the cost. The committee on Sept. 10 also unanimously approved a recommendation to City Council that they be authorized to start the process to establish a “Quiet Zone” in the city. That recommendation was unanimously approved at the full Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, but with a stipulation that no money be spent at this time, and not without some spirited discussion.

Alderman Brad Behrendt asked if they had ever seen an accident occur due to the malfunction of a train signal, and quiet zone proponent Alderman Dennis Colburn agreed he had. Behrendt wondered if they knew how much the city would be liable for if something like that were to happen, and Colburn replied they weren’t talking about insurance costs, they were talking about train whistles at 3 a.m.

Alderman Dave Buechler said engineers would still be allowed to blow their horns if a safety hazard was present.

Miller explained 69 communities in Wisconsin have established quiet zones, and explained the long and difficult process they would face to establish one.

Alderman Carol Kempka pointed out that Council approval of the committee’s recommendation would simply start the process of initiating a “Quiet Zone,” and there would be no costs to the city without further action.

When the matter was up for committee discussion again on Oct. 8, Miller provided the information requested at the Sept. 10 meeting. Members present were Colburn, Dorothy Kowalski, Scott Wahl and Chair Martha Karban, as well as Mayor Denise Ruleau. Buechler, a committee member, was absent.

Miller reported as he digs into the rules on quiet zones he finds more and more information on what’s involved, and assured them it will be a long process. There are two railroad right of ways in the city, one owned by E&LS and the other by Canadian National. Miller said federal agencies told him since two railroads are involved they cannot simply have a city-wide quiet zone. There are eight public crossings on the Canadian National in the city, of which seven are controlled with gates, lights and timed devices and one, Ella Court, is not.

He said next year E&LS plans to reconstruct a track segment from the main line to Marinette Marine and there are no lights, gates or constant warning devices at any of the eight crossings involved.

Cost to install gates, warning lights and timing devices is approximately $200,000 to $250,000 per crossing, and installation would be at city expense, a total of approximately $2 million if all crossings were taken care of. “There’s no way we can afford that,” he declared.

Just to put signals at the five crossings in the northwest corner of the city would cost about $1.5 million, Miller said. He presented charts showing how the city could be divided into four segments, each with its own quiet zone.

Dismayed by the thought of more trains through the city, a speaker objected, “We don’t want more horns and whistles going off. We want less!” He wondered if they could negotiate with the railroads.

“It’s highly unlikely the railroad will dig into its own pockets for $2 million to defray the cost of those crossings,” Miller replied.

“Adopt a ‘can-do’ attitude and see what grants we can get to help pay for signals,” the speaker urged.

Miller explained the E&LS project is 70 percent funded by a grant from the state, plus a local match of 30 percent.

Jaeger asked if the railroads pay for use of city property and was told they do not, they own all their right of way.

Miller explained more of the quiet zone rules, including an annual report after it is in effect comparing the quiet zone accident rates with accident rate averages at all crossings in the nation, as a means of measuring the safety of the crossings. To keep the quiet zone intact, the quiet zone index must be below the national average.

Miller said in view of some unique situations in Marinette, he has been advised they would do well to hire a consultant before proceeding too far. They would need to analyze the risks for each intersection and how the crossing works. In some cases improvements such as curbs, lane dividers and barriers to prevent traffic from getting into the crossing area from side streets would be required by the Federal Rail Administration (FRA).

A diagnostic team in the FRA will evaluate the plans and if they find them acceptable and rule that they meet the minimum standards, they would make an update on the national rail inventory. Once requirements are met, the city could have a quiet zone designation.

Karban commented that two aldermen have already said they will not vote for the quiet zone if there is a lot of money involved. She was told that DePere did their own quiet zone work, and so did Watertown, but that was before the rules got so strict. “I would like to see us start this on our own and see how far we can get,” she urged. Miller expressed doubt the Council understands the magnitude of the costs that will be involved in bringing the proposed project to reality.

Wahl suggested they try talking to the railroads to see if they can get their engineers to “turn the whistles down a notch,” or not blow them so long.

One of the handful of people present said the trains do not all go through the city with one long horn blast, and they do not all blow the whistles so long and loud. Noise limits are 96 to 110 decibels 100 feet in front of the train and 15 feet above the rail. Horns are not supposed to blow more than a quarter of a mile before they reach the crossing. Most of those present on the quiet zone quest felt the noise levels are greatly exceeded by some trains, but not by others.

“They’re doing it (blowing the whistles) way more than they need to,” Jaeger said. “They don’t all do it, but the ones who do are driving people crazy!”

There also were comments that trains have been clocked traveling through the city at 37 miles per hour. Menasha, by contrast, has a set speed limit of 12 miles per hour for trains.

Karban asked Attorney Sbar to draft a letter to the two railroads, asking them to be mindful of the decibel level on their horns and whistles.

Miller said the only alternative to adding signals and otherwise bringing the crossings up to standards would be to eliminate the unsignaled crossings, a solution the railroads always favor since every crossing they close reduces their liability. However, the city needs to consider access to neighborhoods, not only by residents, but also by law enforcement and emergency vehicles.

Kowalski moved to continue to explore the quiet zones on the main lines, and in the meantime, have Attorney Sbar write a letter to the railroads asking them to obey the laws as they pass through the city. That motion was unanimously approved. Sbar noted that the Council had allocated no money so far, and if they are to continue exploring the options there will be some costs involved.

The final item on the Oct. 8 committee agenda involved complaints about semi-truck traffic on Lester Street. Karban said she has been approached a number of times by people who tell her that three to 10 times each day semis traveling to the Kimberly Clark Paper Mill access it by way of Lester Street instead of taking the curve on Riverside Drive.

Miller suggested three solutions: First, get verification that it really is happening; second, contact the mill and ask for their help, and third, establish weight limits on Lester Street.

Karban said she asked the complainant to keep a log of the trucks, but was told he doesn’t want to get involved.

Karban said they will try to get more concrete information and follow up with it next month.


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