Yarmouth likely to form railroad quiet-zone committee

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YARMOUTH — With the possibility of a 2 a.m. train coming through town every day, the Town Council is considering forming a citizen’s committee to study whether the town can safely eliminate the sound of train whistles.

At a workshop Nov. 6 and an operations committee meeting Nov. 10, councilors discussed creating a committee to look at ways to create so-called quiet zones, which would keep trains from using their horns at railroad crossings with improved safety features.

“The purpose of this committee in simple terms is to do their homework and bring that back to council,” Councilor Pat Thompson said Monday.

The council will vote Nov. 20 on whether the committee should be formed, although the discussion on Nov. 10 suggested all councilors support the idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean every councilor is in favor of quiet zones.

“We can take their recommendation and listen to it, but make our own judgement,” Councilor Andy Kittredge said Monday.

The details of the committee are still being worked out, but councilors decided they would want the group to submit a written report and presentation no later than next March. Councilors said the committee can just present the facts, or it can make a recommendation about a course of action to take.

The committee would have either five or seven members. A couple members of the public at the Nov. 10 meeting volunteered to be on the panel, but members won’t be chosen until after Nov. 20. Councilors also discussed having a councilor or town staffer as a liaison to the group.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, was present at the workshop meeting to answer questions about quiet zones. She also discussed the Brunswick layover facility, which has yet to be built, but would bring an Amtrak Downeaster train through Yarmouth daily at 2 a.m.

Many members of the public expressed opposition to that possibility.

“Additional trains coming through town is bad news for me,” Ron Siviski said. “I hear the train with the windows shut and I swear the train is in my driveway.”

Joleen Estabrook, who lives between the North Road and Elm Street crossings, said that if quiet zones aren’t created, she’ll have to move. She said she believes her house will do poorly on the real estate market because of the train traffic.

“It will not be easy for me to sell my home,” Estabrook said. “Who’d want to buy it if we don’t fix this problem?”

Estabrook filed noise complaints earlier this fall, prompting the council to look at the problem. The issue was discussed last year, too, but councilors rejected the establishment of quiet zones.

Matt Holden agreed with Estabrook, saying train whistles will make it hard for people to sell their houses. He said councilors should be thinking about the town’s tax base.

“It’s not a question of safety. We’ve seen other towns adopt these methods. It’s not a question of cost. It’s a question of property value,” Holden said.

While Quinn didn’t announce her stance on the creation of quiet zones, she reminded councilors and the public that the crossings are not the only places where people need to watch for oncoming trains.

“Quite frankly, when the train doesn’t blow its horn, they don’t make much sound at all,” Quinn said. “It’s not always about crossings, it’s about the space in between.”

Town Manager Nat Tupper has brought up this concern in the past and Police Chief Michael Morrill talked about it at last Thursday’s meeting. He said he is concerned about creating a quiet zone at the Sligo Road crossing, because people trespassing on the trestle wouldn’t hear a train coming until it is too late.

“It’s not that I’m against quiet zones,” the chief said. “I’m looking at the risks.”

Morrill said “the trespassing issue has to be addressed,” but Yarmouth has a limited number of officers and they can’t be at the trestle all the time. Morrill said officers check it as often as they can.

Kittredge suggested there should be more education about railroad safety.

“No matter what we do, it sounds likes we have a pedestrian problem and a trespassing problem and we need some sort of education around that,” he said Nov. 6.

Other councilors talked more about the cost of creating quiet zones. The most expensive option, at around $500,000, would be to install a quad-gate system that blocks traffic in both directions.

A less expensive option would be to use channelization for around $250,000. This involves putting plastic barriers along the medians of the streets leading up to the crossings. The barriers would prevent vehicles from crossing into the oncoming lane to go around dual gates.

“I am concerned about cost and I have to be fiscally responsible here, but we have to look at all sides of this,” Councilor Tamson Bickford-Hamrock said Nov. 6.

Councilor David Craig said cost shouldn’t be a concern.

“If you think of this as an investment to keep property values up in town, it’s a very small investment,” he said Nov. 6. “This is an investment that pays for itself. We don’t have to worry about cost.”

Thompson said she wants the committee to find an answer to one overarching question:

“What can we do in the least expensive way that doesn’t drive taxes up and accomplishes want we need to accomplish, which is maintaining people’s quality of life?”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.