There is no legitimate reason for Baker City, with the aid of a citizens group that has been working on the project for about two years, not to continue pursuing a railroad quiet zone designation.

Yet three members of the City Council — Mayor Kerry McQuisten, Joanna Dixon and Johnny Waggoner Sr. — voted against a motion to do just that on Tuesday evening, Oct. 12.

The motion failed by a 3-3 vote. Councilors Jason Spriet, Heather Sells and Shane Alderson voted in favor of the motion.

The conflict is over whether the city should continue the process of seeking a quiet zone through the Federal Railroad Administration, or whether the city should put the matter on the ballot in May 2022.

McQuisten, in a recent post on her Facebook page, wrote “I truly don’t see any way to decide this controversial issue other than a ballot vote.” McQuisten also wrote: “Going by past elections, straw polls, and what I hear out in public, my general perception is that roughly 1500 people are in favor of the quiet zone and roughly 8500 people are not.”

That’s hardly a credible public survey.

Moreover, the level of opposition to a quiet zone that McQuisten cites seems improbably high were city residents to understand how different the current proposal is from what happened before.

The past election McQuisten cited took place almost 20 years ago, in May 2002. In that election city voters soundly rejected a proposal for the city to seek a quiet zone, with 82% opposed and 18% in favor.

But there’s a key difference between then and now. The 2002 measure noted that the city would have to build dividers at railroad crossings to prevent vehicles from reaching the tracks when a train is passing, at an estimated cost of $40,000 to $60,000.

In other words, voters in 2002 were not asked whether they supported a quiet zone, per se, but whether they were willing to devote city dollars to the project.

Money, as the saying goes, changes everything.

The situation now is different.

The citizens group promoting the quiet zone has vowed that it will raise the money needed to build dividers or make other changes to railroad crossings that make them safer. Those changes are required for a quiet zone designation, so it can’t happen unless the group actually raises the money.

When the quiet zone issue involved the possible spending of public money that hadn’t already been budgeted, it was reasonable for the city to take the matter to voters, as happened in 2002.

But with no city money on the table, it’s no longer necessary to do so, any more than it would be if the city, for instance, were to install a new stop sign or build a wheelchair cut in a curb.

So long as there is no cost to taxpayers, there is no downside to the city qualifying for a quiet zone.

With the construction of dividers, it would be much more difficult, if not physically impossible, for a driver to get to the tracks when a train is passing and the crossing arms are down. An October 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office — the official auditor of federal programs — concluded that analyses in 2011 and 2013 by the Federal Railroad Administration “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.

In any case, train engineers can still sound their horns in a quiet zone at their discretion — if a person is walking on or near the tracks, for instance.

Eliminating most train horns would improve the quality of life — a benefit our neighbors in La Grande, which earned quiet zone designation at the end of 2019, and Pendleton, which has had a quiet zone since the 1970s, already enjoy.

Regardless of whether the blaring horns bother you a lot or a little or even not at all, the noise is particularly obnoxious at South Baker Intermediate School, which is very near the tracks.

Given that the quiet zone can be accomplished at no expense to taxpayers, and without sacrificing safety, the only plausible reason to oppose the designation is on the decidedly subjective grounds of ambience — that the echoing horns, perhaps by invoking nostalgia, add more to the city than they take away.

It’s easy to understand why a lot of city voters in 2002 didn’t think the city should spend money to silence most train horns. Many no doubt feel the same now.

But it’s much more difficult to believe that a significant number of residents are so enamored of that particular noise that they would feel bereft in the comparative tranquility of its absence.

Besides which, the 20 or so trains that roll through town daily wouldn’t become silent. Their steel wheels would still squeak and clatter, sounds evocative of the railroad and its history here dating to 1884, but also much gentler sounds, ones less likely to interrupt a teacher in the classroom or awaken someone in the dark.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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