First Ward makes noise about proposed quiet zone

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- When Michael Hammond and his family moved into their Dart Street home in the First Ward, he says they were well aware of the positives. The home had a great view of the downtown skyline, convenient location and the train tracks just below the balcony was part of the package.

Hammond says he likes the character the sound of the moving cars adds to the neighborhood.

"An early morning wake-up call on a Saturday or Sunday morning," he said.

But Hammond adds the loud horn that sounds as the train approaches is a different story.

"It'll rattle the deck when the horn honks," he said.

And it's not just the noise that has neighbors rattled here. It's the story behind their efforts to stop it.

Quiet Zones have been established in several neighborhoods around Houston. Less than a half mile from Hammond there's already one in place. A Quiet Zone is a crossing designated by the Federal Railroad Administration where the horn is no longer routinely sounded. The safety of the crossings are upgraded for the designation. The FRA says there are more than 600 across the country.

Neighbors say the city told them there was no funding for the project at both Silver and Sawyer crossings but they could raise the money themselves.

"Our attitude was that's great, we can increase property values a little bit, get some peace and quiet, it's a win-win for everybody," Hammond said.

So the neighborhood of just 40 homes raised $28,000, more than what they say they were quoted for the project in 2012, but they are still waiting.

Dominic Yap led the fundraising drive he says.

"We're not saying remove the train, we're saying remove the honk!" Yap said.

He says some of the neighbors who contributed to the cause have now moved and are asking for their money back.

"We have the money yet we cannot get it done! That's not the Houston spirit. The Houston spirit is we are doers, right," Yap said.

Neighbors say after raising the funds needed they were told more crossings would have to be included in the project.

"The rules got changed, the goal post moved," Yap said.

"They told us we needed to do the improvements for these two crossings, then they added two crossings," Hammond added.

The City of Houston says they are the go-between and they are waiting on the Federal Government.

"Councilman Gonzalez and our office have been assisting the community and are also anxiously awaiting a response from the Federal Railroad Administration," Jerry Peruchini, Chief of Staff of Office of Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez said.

The FRA says the city should receive a response soon, noting the essential safety improvement that accompany a request for a Quiet Zone.

Public Affairs Specialist Michael Cole says According to The Federal Railroad Administration:

    "The Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) number one priority is safety. Over the past decade the number of highway-rail grade incidents declined by 35 percent. This record level of safety is attributable to a variety of factors, including rigorous enforcement of regulations such as the sounding of train horns.

    Despite the decline in the number of highway-rail grade collisions, trespassing and highway-grade incidents still account for 96 percent of all rail-related fatalities. Train horns exist to help save lives, and they are an essential element of crossing safety; however, FRA recognizes that sounding the horns sometimes result in unintended, adverse impacts on the quality of life for some residents of communities along rail lines. That is why the ability to establish quiet zones was included in our regulations - to mitigate adverse impacts to local communities.

    Designating a quiet zone is complicated because additional improvements are necessary in order to replace the safety benefits of the sounding of train horns otherwise provide. Establishing and maintaining a quiet zone can also be costly to local governments because grade crossings frequently need to be improved with new equipment and signal systems to ensure safety is maintained. That process can take time and requires considerable negotiation between local communities and railroads. Currently, there are more than 600 quiet zones across the country.

    We are supportive of every community's desire to preserve its quality of life, but we must balance that with our responsibility to maintain public safety. The Federal Railroad Administration continues to work closely with the City of Houston and Union Pacific Railroad as they work to establish quiet zones as we continue to ensure public safety is maintained and quality of life concerns are addressed."

There is a lot of frustration among those who have invested their own money.

"If it was the mayor's house on the railroad tracks would the train whistle still be blowing?" Hammond asked.

For now, the money sits in an account and the horn still sounds. null
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