A grassroots call to establish a "quiet zone" for a segment of Palo Alto's rail corridor picked up some volume Monday night when members of the City Council agreed to further study the proposal.
Quiet zones are sections of the rail line where approaching trains do not routinely sound horns. For more than two years, downtown residents near Alma Street have been lobbying the council to create one near their homes. During the Monday night study session of the topic, several residents reiterated their frustrations about the persistent and pervasive train horns.
It's a tune that many downtown residents are tired of in many cases, literally. Some complained about being kept awake late at night by passing freight trains. During the day, it's mostly Caltrain zipping past their homes.
Martin Sommer said that roughly 90 trains pass by his neighborhood, sounding the horn each time they enter and exit the station.
"Some have the audacity to have their own tone sequence as they're coming into the station," he said. "And these guys repeat it day after day."
Zouhair Mahboubi, who also lives near Alma and who has been leading the drive toward a quiet zone, said freight trains routinely run at 2 and 3 a.m.
"Waking up in the middle of the night to something like that is never fun," Mahboubi said. "I can't believe there's that many cars at that time of the night that you would have to sound a horn to tell them not to cross."
The Federal Railroad Administration, which defines quiet zones, allows cities to establish them provided they can institute certain safety measures. These could be median barriers or quad gates near rail crossings.
The costs of these improvements would range from about $100,000 dollars for the median barriers to $1 million or more for the quad gates. The city attorney's office also determined the city might be required to supplement its liability insurance for any incidents that occur at a quiet zone intersection. Yet City Attorney Molly Stump also said Monday that her office is not aware of any city in the region that has dealt with this issue.
Some council members said they see establishing a quiet zone as an important interim measure while the city pursues a more dramatic, expensive uncertain solution: grade separation of Caltrain tracks.
Councilman Tom DuBois, the only council member to come out against a quiet zone, argued that the former would distract from the latter.
"I'd like to see us urgently pursue grade separation and use our grade separation study to pursue funding," DuBois said. "I think we should be laser focused as a council on the transportation ballot measure in 2016 and see if we can get money from that for grade separation.
"I'm not for train noise, but I see it as a trade-off of money and staff time and I'd rather see us focus on grade crossings. At this point, I would not support quiet zones on Alma."
Most of his colleagues felt that this is a false choice because of the huge difference in the scope, scale and cost of the respective projects. The effort to grade-separate the corridor would cost hundreds of millions of dollars that the city does not have and require years of studies, design work and property acquisition.
Councilman Pat Burt said that he doesn't see the two solution as "either/or at all." Grade separations, he said, remain a long-term goal that is at least a decade away and that may not materialize at all.
"But I don't see these as choices of one versus the other," Burt said. "I very much look at the quiet zone as an independent issue and not an either/or with grade separation."
Other members also said they were open to exploring the idea further and directed city staff to return at a later date with more analysis.
Councilman Marc Berman emphasized the need to hone in on the cost estimate, while Burt and Mayor Karen Holman framed the issue of train noise and accompanying sleep deprivation as a matter of public health.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid agreed with his colleagues that grade separation at the rail corridor should be the "focus and attention of staff."
"But in the mean time, working for quiet zones seems feasible, realistic and affordable to move in that direction," Schmid said.