Baker City officials are inviting residents to attend an open house on Jan. 30 to learn about the city’s interest in potentially applying for a railroad Quiet Zone, and to tell officials what they think about the idea.
The open house will run from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1655 First St.
At the behest of a group of local residents who support a Quiet Zone, the Baker City Council in November authorized the city to submit a notice of intent to apply for a Quiet Zone designation from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
The city could file that notice by the end of February, said Michelle Owen, the city’s public works director.
Filing the notice would not obligate the city to do anything else, and there is no fee.
Owen said Thursday that she and others are working on potential designs for safety improvements at each of the five railroad crossings that would be affected — at Auburn Avenue, Broadway, Campbell and 17th streets, and Pocahontas Road.
There will be a station with information on each crossing at next week’s open house, Owen said.
The purpose of the Jan. 30 open house is to gather ideas from the public that the city can incorporate into the notice of intent to apply for a Quiet Zone, she said.
To qualify for a Quiet Zone, cities must make changes to railroad crossings that are more robust than the existing lights and crossing arms and are more effective at preventing vehicles from getting to the tracks when a train is approaching or passing.
These could include barriers that extend for at least 100 feet on either side of the crossing, or four-quadrant gates.
Owen said that although Baker City could potentially qualify for a Quiet Zone, based on FRA safety standards, by modifying as few as two of the five crossings, the city will not consider applying for the designation unless each of the five crossings has safety upgrades.
Train conductors can still sound warning whistles in Quiet Zones if there is a vehicle or pedestrian on the tracks or in other emergencies, per the conductor’s discretion.
An average of about 24 trains per day roll through Baker City. Federal rules require trains to sound their whistle within a quarter mile of crossings.
Owen said she, along with Mayor Loran Joseph and City Manager Fred Warner Jr., planned to drive to La Grande today to see the changes that city made to qualify for a Quiet Zone, which took effect there Dec. 27.
La Grande spent about $200,000 to improve five railroad crossings.
Owen said Baker City has not allocated any money for crossing work required to qualify for a Quiet Zone.
In addition to the five street crossings in Baker City, there is a pedestrian crossing of the railroad at Carter Street.
Owen said the city would propose to close that crossing rather than make safety improvements, which she said could cost more than any of the street crossings.
The City Council has discussed the possibility of applying for a Quiet Zone a few times over the past 20 years or so.
But the current citizens group promoting the idea, Neighbors for a Safer, Quieter and Healthier Baker City, has been especially active. The group made a proposal to the City Council in November and presented a petition signed by more than 230 residents who support a Quiet Zone.
The group contends that whistles interrupt residents’ sleep and interfere with students’ learning at South Baker Intermediate School, which is near the tracks.
Although critics of the Quiet Zone proposal have argued in social media posts that the city shouldn’t compromise public safety just to silence train whistles, an October 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office — the auditor of federal programs — concludes that analyses in 2011 and 2013 by the (FRA) “showed that there was generally no statistically significant difference in the number of accidents that occurred before and after quiet zones were established.”
The FRA studied 359 quiet zones in 2011, and 203 more in 2013.