ELKHART — As the City of Elkhart looks to create a quiet zone, disallowing trains to use their horns at local crossings, the soundtrack of Elkhart could change.
With an estimated 100 trains passing through Elkhart every day, according to the Mayor’s Office, residents are no strangers to the sound of the trains. In June, enough was enough for Michael Wilson, a Huron Street resident, who took his complaints to the City Council.
“Law enforcement tells me, after 10 p.m. I have to keep my music at a minimum at my home,” Wilson said. “Why is the train horn allowed to blow all day, all night, long?”
A chance to fix a problem that keeps voters up at night got the attention of some council members.
Councilwoman Mary Olson, R-at large, said the city in the past has “fought the good fight.” She described the necessary efforts to create quiet zones as a “constant battle.”
“The railroads bring the big guns,” she said. “It’s a conversation that should be continued, but it’s not easy.”
Council President Brian Dickerson, R-at large, asked the city’s corporation council, Vlado Vranjes, to look into what the obstacles would be for creating a quiet zone.
“The way I look at it is, the gentleman is right,” Dickerson said, referencing Wilson. “As long we could balance public safety.”
Mayor Tim Neese, R, said he is in favor of establishing a quiet zone.
“One of the key criteria of a quiet zone is, we have to be certain that we can make it nearly impossible for pedestrians and vehicles to cross,” he said.
Grade separation, meaning the creation of an over- or underpass, would be the ideal solution, according to the mayor. That has already been done at Prairie Street, at Benham Avenue and at Indiana Avenue.
Another overpass is in the works for the Hively Avenue crossing, but the price tag is $20 million, so doing the same at Lusher Avenue would take another significant amount of money.
However, the city is only paying for $4 million for the Hively Avenue project, while $16 million comes from an Indiana Department of Transportation grant. But securing another grant of that size would be difficult and take time, according to the mayor.
Another option for Lusher Avenue and the Main Street crossing, which is the other remaining crossing that would need an upgrade before a quiet zone could become a reality, is additional crossing arms and barriers.
That option would be cheaper and faster to build, Neese said, though he couldn’t specify by how much.
According to the mayor, a grade separation at Main Street isn’t impossible, but a curve in Middlebury Street on the north side of the tracks, in addition to the number of buildings near the crossing, makes it an unlikely solution.
Neese said at the council meeting that he had previously been asked if he might close the crossing at Main Street, but that he would not take that step given the crossing’s importance for leading traffic in and out of downtown.
Dickerson, who agreed with the mayor, described the idea as “ridiculous.”
No matter what solution turns out to best fit the remaining crossings, the city is not about to spend money if a quiet zone won’t follow, the mayor said.
“We just want to be certain that as we do that and spend money, taxpayer money, that we’re going to have, then, the support of the (Federal) Railroad Administration to then be designated as a quiet zone,” Neese said. “I would like to know that we have a guarantee.”
Though no specific plans have been made, the mayor said he believed getting a quiet zone in Elkhart is realistic.
“I think there’s a high degree of feasibility that we could do this,” he said.
However, Neese is in the final six months of his four-year term as mayor and is not seeking re-election this fall, and so the likelihood of a quiet zone would probably also depend on the next mayor, as well as the next City Council.
For a first step, Neese said his administration would be in contact within the first few weeks of July with the cities of Mishawaka and South Bend, where quiet zones have already been implemented, in order to draw inspiration.
“We’ll contact any municipality and try and learn from their success,” Neese said.
Within the same time frame, he said, the city will also at least make contact with the Federal Railroad Administration. The FRA requires that the city send a notice of intent and, eventually, notice of quiet zone establishment to the railroad operator, which in Elkhart’s case is Norfolk Southern. Neese said this would be among his first steps.
Neese’s communications director, Courtney Bearsch, said that the feasibility of a quiet zone was also taken into account when the Hively Avenue overpass was planned. That construction is expected to begin in 2021.
“These things, they take a long time to work out,” she said.
But if the city is successful, it could mean better sleep for residents and a faster commute for drivers. That makes this a quality of life issue, according to the mayor.
“It doesn’t come without a cost, but I think there potentially could be payback,” Neese said.
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