Falmouth hopes crossing upgrades will spur railroad quiet zones

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FALMOUTH — An initiative to establish quiet zones at two railroad crossings received a major boost Monday, but it’s unclear whether the effort will survive ever-evolving rules at the federal level. 

At its regular meeting on April 28, the Town Council by a vote of 5-1 approved a plan to improve safety measures at railroad crossings at Blackstrap, Falmouth, Field and Woodville roads. The council is authorizing an additional $100,000 in spending, which brings the total cost of the project to an estimated $230,000.

The council also authorized $350,000 in renovations to Town Hall and provided an update on the budgeting process.

The proposed railroad crossing safety improvements, known as channelization, call for vehicle barriers at each crossing that limit drivers’ ability to “slalom” around railroad gates as trains approach, said Theo Holtwijk, the town’s director of long range planning, who provided a full house with an update on the project.

Channelization is achieved at railroad crossings by installing curbs on roadsides and erecting flexible pole barriers on center lines.

Crossings at Blackstrap and Falmouth roads already meet quiet-zone standards, so channelization at those locations is meant to improve safety and bring consistency to all railroad crossings in town.  At Field and Woodville roads, the improvements are meant to meet federal safety standards, which would remove the need for train operators to blow whistles while approaching the intersections – a nuisance to nearby residents. 

However, achieving channelization at three of the crossings is complicated.

At Blackstrap and Falmouth roads, where train whistles are not an issue, the nearby intersections of public roads prevent “full channelization.” At Woodville Road, the intersection of a private road complicates the plan.

There, the town could either reconfigure the private intersection at a cost of $30,000, or erect partial channelization, meaning that there would be a gap in the center-line barrier on the western side of the crossing.

Partial channelization at that location would meet federal safety standards, but just barely, Holtwijk said. If the federal standards change over the years, it is possible that the crossing could fall out of compliance and the town would face another choice: either upgrade the crossing or let the whistles resume.

A plan for that crossing is still in the design phase and the true cost is unknown, but Town Manager Nathan Poore said the average cost of each crossing will be $50,000.

During a public comment period, several property owners who are affected by the train noise opposed channelization on aesthetic grounds. Jessica Brookman said the horns are “kind of a pain,” but believes channelization is unsightly.

Woodville Road resident Margaret Thompson, whose private road would be adversely affected by full channelization, also questioned the aesthetics and asked the council to consider a costlier four-gate system that would likewise prevent motorists from slaloming through the crossing.

Nonetheless, she thanked the council for considering partial channelization, which will allow her family to continue operating farm machinery through the area with relative ease.

Birkdale Road resident Jimmy Ascanio advocated for full channelization at the crossing, saying that public safety is a higher priority than convenient operation of farm machinery by a few residents. He also urged the council to take action, saying the train whistles adversely affect property values.

The issue of quiet zones has been a topic for the council since December 2011. First-term Councilor Russ Anderson said each discussion leads him to believe channelization is the answer to the problem because it’s a “significant improvement of safety” and presents a win-win situation.

“If, at the same time we are improving safety, we can improve the quality of life for hundreds of families, and increase their their property values, which will in turn will increase revenues for the town, that’s all good,” he said. “That’s icing on the cake.”

But Councilor Sean Mahoney, who opposed the measure, said the cost won’t guarantee safety, and framing the issue around safety in disingenuous. If the council were truly concerned about safety, he said, they would consider channelization with continued whistles at each crossing for the benefit of pedestrians.

All other councilors said establishing a quiet zone is a worthwhile pursuit, but Councilor Karen Farber doubted the usefulness of partial channelization. She said it is clearly safer than the existing situation at Woodville Road, but she questioned its longevity.

“We could get two years down the road and the Federal Railroad Administration could say, ‘This ain’t enough,’ and the whistles start again,” she said. “This investment does not guarantee (a quiet zone).”

Town Hall renovations

The council unanimously approved a $350,000 project to address air quality problems in Town Hall.

The 12-week project was awarded to Hardypond Construction to replace the building’s HVAC system and eliminate mold.

Glenn Harmon, senior architect for Oak Point Associates, told the council that the work is roughly a third of the cost of the total renovations needed at Town Hall.

Those issues were among $1 million in projects identified last year, including exterior renovations such as new siding, windows and doors.

Town Hall has had two major additions and renovations since its construction at the turn of the 20th century.

The first addition in 1960 is now the home of the food pantry and was formerly the police station. The building’s last large renovation was in 1990, when the second floor was added along with the portion that includes the Town Council Chambers.

New carpeting and paint were added in 2008.

Budget update

Councilors unanimously approved a $43.1 million budget for fiscal year 2015, which includes $31.7 million in school spending.

Before the vote, Farber, chairwoman of the finance committee, provided clarification on the property tax rate impact of the new budget. Although the town and school budgets were projected to have zero impact on the mil rate, increased expenses from Cumberland County would have driven the rate up by two cents; however, projected increases in excise taxes from automobile sales might offset that two-cent increase. 

As a legal formality, the council will present the budget once more on May 12. Residents will vote on the proposed school budget on June 10. 

Councilor Dave Goldberg was absent Monday.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.