The Baker City Council didn’t make a final decision Tuesday, June 8, but councilors discussed asking voters in the future what they think about the city applying for a “quiet zone” within the city limits, in which freight trains wouldn’t sound their horns except in emergencies.

That’s a reasonable idea. Certainly our elected representatives would be wise to try to find out, to the extent possible, what their constituents think about the matter.

If the city puts the issue on the May 2022 ballot, it would avoid having to spend money for the election, as would be the case this November, as no other local issues are slated for that election.

A ballot measure is also an efficient way to gauge public sentiment about the issue, one that’s likely to reach far more residents than other survey methods, some of which would entail costs. An online survey the Baker City Police Department conducted in March, for instance, attracted about 575 respondents. There are around 6,000 registered voters in the city.

Councilor Lynette Perry suggested the city have a town hall to gather opinions on the issue prior to an election. That’s also a worthwhile proposal.

If the quiet zone topic ends up on the ballot next May, the council needs to explain the situation as thoroughly as possible to avoid misleading voters.

For instance, although some people might assume that eliminating most train whistles would pose a danger to drivers and pedestrians, federal studies that included more than 560 quiet zones in 2011 and 2013 showed no statistically significant difference in accidents after quiet zones were established. The obvious reason is that federal officials don’t approve quiet zones unless the affected crossings have more robust gates, medians or other equipment installed to prevent vehicles from reaching the tracks while a train is near. Quiet zones don’t merely eliminate most whistles — they also make it less likely that a vehicle will be on the tracks when a train is passing.

Voters also need to understand that a local group promoting the quiet zone intends to raise money to pay for the crossing improvements Baker City would need to qualify for a quiet zone. The city council should invite members of the group to a future meeting to give an update about the group’s efforts, which include, in 2019, gathering signatures from 230 local residents who support the quiet zone. The potential for the city to have a quiet zone without spending public dollars would undoubtedly be an important factor for some voters.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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