The Longmont Observer regularly publishes stories by our residents called Member Voices. This article falls into that category. It does not, necessarily, represent the views of the Longmont Observer.
By Richard Jacobi, a local physician and a resident of the historic Eastside neighborhood for over 20 years
Ah, spring is here, complete with several Colorado traditions…vibrant green lawns without irrigation, an inevitable snow or 2 on our tulips and lilacs, opening windows at night for fresh cool breezes…and the return of the train horn. Even back in the good ol’ days when the train wasn’t as loud, Florida recognized that this caused decreased quality of life and encouraged urban blight wherever the train went–so they made a law allowing horns to be only blown at the conductor’s discretion during the wee hours of night. Unfortunately, the accident rate at railroad crossings went up, the Federal Railroad Administration stepped in, and they made it mandatory that trains blow their horns at all hours, at an elevated level (96-110 db), for a mandated longer period of time, at every intersection–unless stringent rules were met for the train crossings. If 1/2 mile or more of track only crossed these approved crossings, that section could be made into a ‘quiet zone’.
Since the law went in effect in 2005, our trains have gone from a minor annoyance to a significant problem, where they go through Longmont on the south and east side. Not only have trains gotten louder, but train traffic has picked up, especially with the development of oil fields in the Dakotas. And as Longmont has grown, more people near more intersections have been affected, such as those near the developments by Rough and Ready park.
The City of Longmont has long recognized the train problem, but has been slow to respond; a study on noise in the city was done soon after the horn change, and a majority of residents saw train noise as a significant problem. Longmont annually budgets and plans for maintenance and development projects through what is called the Capital Improvement Program (CIP); they have lists for funded and unfunded projects, and installing quiet zones has been on the unfunded ‘wish list’ since 2006. Since then, City reaction to the noise problem seemed to slow down, perhaps because of (first) a recession, and (then) flood damage and repairs. In 2010 Longmont did a study to explore making a quiet zone through town, but did nothing with the results; finally, fed up residents approached the city in 2015, citing not only disruption of sleep, but research showing problems with health and and a decrease in school performance when exposed to loud train noise–and the train runs by several schools, which have historically performed less well than average for the school district. In response, the City funded an updated quiet zone feasibility study, while residents beseeched City Council and the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) to actually fund crossing improvements, moving them from ‘unfunded’ to ‘partially funded’ in the CIP plan.
In 2016 the TAB recommended funding RR crossing improvements with the next fiscal year; and while the updated feasibility study tripled the expected cost of making all of Longmont a quiet zone–the cost had ballooned to $6 million now–prospects of developing the old turkey plant site into quality housing also made the issue more urgent. The city partially acquiesced, and set aside $50,000 for staff to explore federal grants available to help us improve our railroad crossings, and apply for them–so improvements can be made, and we can all get more sleep.
Two questions repeatedly come up about this issue. Residents farther from the tracks always ask, why are residents wanting the city to spend money on train noise, when we knew the trains were here when we moved here? The other question frequently raised is, how about other train problems, such as trains repeatedly blocking traffic–and safety issues? (How did it come to be, that oil trains–each car carrying about 120 tons of flammable crude, or cars with a similar amount of molten sulfur–cruise through every major population center in the state, every day?). The safety issue grew as Colorado’s cities evolved, but to answer the first question: while the train was here before the current people near the tracks bought their homes, the train noise definitely was not. Many in the Historic Eastside Neighborhood have been fixing up their homes for years, helping to revitalize an area that was run down (before a City and National historic district were made)–only to see their quality of life reduced with the 2005 federal train horn law. They argue that encouraging revitalization–both in historic districts, and at the turkey plant site–also helps the downtown center of the City, and the City as a whole. Some have speculated that even at $6 million, the City will recoup it’s expenses for quieting trains, as property values respond and taxes go up in areas surrounding the track.
As far as traffic obstruction and safety is concerned and just moving the train, it also seems to make simple sense to buy up the tracks (with the help of RTD?) and move the trains out east, where they can go faster, quieter (for us), and safer–BNSF already has one North-South track that goes through Sterling, that has less curves and more sidings than their front range tracks; Union Pacific has another. But the cost of moving tracks is prohibitive–and preliminary studies of doing this in the Colorado Springs area many years ago went nowhere, despite studies suggesting possible economic benefit to towns farther out on the plains. This would have to be approached at the state and/or federal level.
But for Longmont? The City applied for one grant for $1 million that looked promising, until (ironically) it lost out to another proposal, that was also for our City–but plans are to resubmit the application for the train grant again, this year. The city is also looking into applying for a large regional grant, one which might fund the whole project for us–but this will take coordination with other front range towns, something City staff is working on now. Or perhaps Longmont could fund this ourselves, over years, with planning and continued pressure on the City Council to do something: with an annual budget of over $300 million and growing, there has got to be some wiggle room.
In the meantime, let City Council know you care, and leave your windows closed–or use earplugs at night.