Tulsa officials mull extension of train 'quiet zone' downtown
BY ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2013
2/10/13 at 9:14 AM
Business has been better at the Hyatt Regency Tulsa since downtown's trains went silent three years ago.
For the most part.
"It's definitely better, but if the wind is right and the direction is right, we still hear an occasional horn," hotel manager Jeff Keely said. "It still disrupts sleep occasionally."
The downtown "quiet zone" took effect in February 2010 after the city installed special gates at five intersections of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Those gates prevent vehicles from driving in front of oncoming trains, nullifying the legal requirement for conductors to blow their horns.
But on a half-mile stretch of Union Pacific railway between the eastern edge of the Inner Dispersal Loop and Peoria Avenue - just close enough to hear from Keely's hotel in the heart of downtown - traditional railway gates remain at seven intersections.
The city's Planning and Economic Development Department wants to change that.
"They are pretty much blowing their horns the entire time they're going through it because of the number of crossings in that area," said Dennis Whitaker, a city planner. "All that blows right into the central business district."
The department has proposed installing enhanced safety features at seven intersections in that stretch - and possibly an eighth on the Burlington Northern track just northeast of downtown, Whitaker said.
Planners want to include the estimated $5 million project in the proposed renewal of the 2008 Fix Our Streets package, which would begin allocating funding in fiscal year 2014.
"The idea here is we're asking for additional funds to build on an existing successful program," said Theron Warlick, a city planner. "The quiet zone has really been a tremendous success."
Silencing trains through the eastern portion of the Inner Dispersal Loop would encourage residential development there - a critical need for downtown, he said.
For developers, it would make the area far more lucrative, said Patrick Fox, whose company, Fox Architects, has been involved with residential projects in the area and is seeking to buy additional properties there.
"A negative for the marketplace is that there are more train whistles going off in the middle of the night and sort of interrupting lifestyles," he said. "I've looked at several properties with several potential buyers, and that's reiterated as one of their concerns."
Whitaker said train conductors are required to blow their horns within 15 seconds of reaching an intersection, which means "you're pretty much laying on the horn the whole time" between Peoria Avenue and First Street.
Getting them to lay off is a complicated process that involves dealing with regulatory bodies and railroad companies that often have their own ideas for what constitutes a sufficiently safe intersection, he said.
Although such dealings delayed the first quiet zone project, this one would likely go smoothly, he said.
"Fortunately, we've done this before and we know how to make it more of a streamlined, efficient process," he said.
The city would have to get approval from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, he said. After that, the railroad companies would have to agree on which safety features to include at the crossings.
Possibilities include installing the four-armed railway gates that were used in the first quiet zone project or building a median on the streets that cross tracks, Whitaker said.
"We have spoken with the railroads in times past about the possibility (of expanding the quiet zone) and they are supporting of that conversation," he said. "We have kind of done some preliminary ducks-in-a-row things to let everyone know it's on our radar screen."
The next Fix Our Streets package is expected to head to voters Nov. 12. It would renew the first package's funding sources, generating an estimated $800 million for streets and other capital projects.
Original Print Headline: Tulsa's horn section
Zack Stoycoff 918-581-8486
A train chugs along the west side of downtown Tulsa after a "quiet zone" was created there in February 2010. Tulsa World File
Traffic crosses a set of train tracks near downtown Tulsa on Friday. The city's "quiet zone" may be extended to several more crossings. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World