Milton looking to become train "quiet zone"

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Neil Johnson
Tuesday, September 3, 2013

MILTON—City officials are looking into a potential fix for loud train whistles that blow all the way through Milton as trains pass through the city's 14 railroad crossings.

The city council Tuesday asked the city to research the possibility of creating a federal train “quiet zone” throughout portions of the city where trains are now required to sound whistles as they approach crossings.                                                 

City Administrator Jerry Schuetz and Mayor Brett Frazier said there have been several complaints by residents of more frequent train traffic blaring horns in town.

Train whistles are not a new phenomenon in Milton, which has been a train hub in southern Wisconsin. But as the city's industrial park has grown, more and longer trains seem to pass through the city at all hours of the day and night, city officials say.

The line runs east-west through the center of the city before splitting off at the west side of town. The bulk of crossings are in residential areas, and some are within a few blocks or less of Milton schools, including two elementary schools.

“We (the city) have been getting a lot of phone calls. They're coming more frequently. There is a significant increase in traffic,” Frazier said. “Every time they (trains) cross the street crossings, they have to blow that whistle. It's blown at least four times through the city anywhere between 95 to 110 decibels,” Frazier said.

In a preliminary report to the council, Schuetz told the council that other cities in the state have enacted train quiet zones, which serve to prohibit or minimize trains from blowing their whistles in those cities.

According to a preliminary legal outline by City Attorney Mark Schroeder, the process would first require the city to upgrade its crossings to meet federal safety guidelines. Trains are required to sound horns as they pass through Milton because the city's crossings aren't properly marked for a quiet zone.

Currently, only seven of the city's 14 train crossings are equipped with lights. Each crossing would need lights and crossing gates before the city could apply to create a train quiet zone, according to safety guidelines established by the Federal Railroad Administration.

After the upgrades, the city would then have to apply for and successfully complete a safety risk assessment by federal officials to determine if the crossings fully compensate for the absence of train horns, which serve to warn people.

Then, the city could apply for a quiet zone.

Schuetz said the city's public works department's preliminary estimates show that such upgrades could cost the city between $100,000 and $150,000 per crossing.

“It could be something that could be potentially expensive,” Schuetz said, although he explained that after the up-front cost, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, the company that owns and operates the rail lines that run through Milton, would pay for maintenance of crossing devices.

Schuetz said he views the city's burden of paying for upgrades before it can face federal assessment for a quiet zone as somewhat of a risk.

“That's concerning,” he said.

The council is asking city staff to look more deeply into potential costs of a quiet zone—as well as the frequency, length and duration of trains that pass through the city, whether train traffic is increasing significantly, and whether most train traffic comes during the day or at night.

Schuetz said the city hasn't collected such data in the past.

The council also is asking the city to review the process by which other cities in the state have applied for and undergone risk assessments to get their own train quiet zones approved. Schuetz said he's requested files from how Prairie Du Chien, a quiet zone community, handled the process.

Schuetz said Wisconsin & Southern Railroad has been accommodating as the city has begun to look into the option of establishing a train quiet zone.

He said the city has explained it's trying to balance a good working relationship with the rail company and be responsive to resident concerns.

“Trains are good in a variety of ways in terms of economic development,” Schuetz said. “But it (train whistle noise) has an impact on quality of life,” he said.

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