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Downeaster noise a downer for Freeport residents; 'quiet zones' vex councilors

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Downeaster noise a downer for Freeport residents; 'quiet zones' vex councilors

FREEPORT — As trains blew their horns in the background, nearly two dozen residents urged the Town Council to institute quiet zones at rail crossings in town to silence the Amtrak Downeaster train horns they said are disrupting their lives.

In a discussion that pushed past 10 p.m. Tuesday, councilors remained hesitant about the costs and liability of quiet zones, eventually pushing the issue to a tentatively scheduled Jan. 8 meeting.

All but one of the more than a dozen residents who spoke supported quiet zones, some to the point of desperation.

Shannon Garrity, who lives on West Street along the tracks, said the early morning train horns wake her, sometimes before 6 a.m., and she's unable to go back to sleep.

"It's absolutely, positively horrible," Garrity said. "I stand in my driveway and cry; this is my life now. There is no concern for the people of Freeport with this plan for economic development. ...We are collateral damage and it's unfair to us."

The Downeaster, which began service to Freeport Nov. 1, makes two round trips a day between Boston and Brunswick, blasting train horns eight times a day at each of the town's six crossings.

Other residents who live near the tracks, including Amanda Myer, said the horns wake up her two children during the night, which is starting to affect their school work.

"My younger daughter is falling asleep at school," she said.

Myer also said she has an in-law house that had been rented for years to the same tenant, who moved out two weeks ago because the train noise was too much to bear. Now, she's having trouble renting the home; one person who decided not to rent cited the train noise as the reason.

"You don't know how loud the train is when it comes by," she said. "There's absolutely an impact on all of us."

Josh Cushing, manager at the Hilton Garden Inn, said although the hotel supports the new train service, noise is the top complaint from patrons and its costing the hotel business.

"We are offering sleep kits with ear plugs to guests to help them get a good night's sleep," he said, noting the kits cost the hotel $1,500 for 250, or $6 each. "We feel the train is beneficial, however the expense to us will only erode over time."

Residents, with data and research on quiet zones in hand, seemed more prepared for the discussion than the councilors: at one point they provided data from the town website that the councilors didn't think they had.

If quiet zones were instituted, the town would likely institute "channelization," which separates traffic lanes with tall plastic cones on both sides of the tracks, acting as a deterrent for people trying to go around the gates.

This method would cost about $100,000.

Other options include raised medians, which could prove difficult for snow plowing, and a system of "quad gates," that can cost upwards of $1 million.

Many councilors didn't seem ready to take a position. They noted a need to review the data on safety and costs and to get more information on how to proceed with getting a quiet zone designation from the Federal Rail Authority.

Currently, the town has lights, gates and bells at all the crossings and meets the requirements to be designated a quiet zone. Other southern Maine towns and cities serviced by the Downeaster, including Portland, Falmouth and Brunswick, are quiet zones.

But, if another daily train is added – which the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority has indicated is a goal – the town could cross the risk threshold and lose the ability to have quiet zone status, Councilor Melanie Sachs said.

Sachs, who was in favor of quiet zones, but not ready to commit without more information, said the town should use its own data to determine risk when trying to become a designated quiet zone. This way the town would be in control of the designation and not have multiple stakeholders' input in an application process.

Council Chaiman Jim Hendircks, who lives near the tracks, said he was in favor of quiet zones based on support from residents and didn't want to "punt this too far down the road."

"Personally, I don't get woken up by the train. But, I'm a heavy sleeper," he said. "The last we'd like to have is an accident; the last thing we'd want is a fatality."

But, he continued, "all things could be prevented by a little education."

The council should also explore the possibility of getting money from the rail authority to help pay for the safety mechanisms, Hendricks said.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.