Depending on who you ask, the quality of life for Albuquerque residents near some of the city's train tracks may be improving over the next few months. But State Sen. Michael Sanchez doesn't want to wait that long to try to save lives in other parts of the state.
The goal of quiet zones is to make the areas near the tracks less noisy, but some, such as North Valley resident Jill Gatwood, say the train whistles are a reassuring sound of stability that needn't be tampered with on the taxpayer's dime. "A train whistle is a certain specific tone," Gatwood told the Alibi last year ["Quiet the Trains," Sept. 14-20]. "It's always the same, and most people find it to be kind of romantic."
Opponents say the quiet zones will silence an important portion of Albuquerque's history; trains are a large part of why the city exists. With two deaths this year on train tracks south of Albuquerque, the question of whether quiet zones are safe enough must also be examined, especially with the quiet zone project moving forward and the Rapid Ride looking to increase its service.
Quiet zone proponents, such as Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich, say quiet zones are as safe or safer than other railroad crossings. Heinrich points out the train accidents in Valencia County took place on private land and highlight the fact that serious and immediate actions should be taken to secure private and unguarded crossings. This effort shouldn't detract from the push for quiet zones, he adds.
Two possible treatments exist to transform the intersections into quiet zones. The first option requires removing the two gates that block approaching lanes and replacing them with four gates to close off both directions of travel. This would prevent vehicles from doing an "S" maneuver, weaving their way around the barriers.
The other option requires the addition of an unmountable median that would extend 100 feet in each direction. A survey was recently completed by the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) to determine which crossings were best suited for each option.
Sanchez' train-related mission was spurred on by the two Rail Runner crashes. Sanchez announced he's determining whether any emergency funding is available to secure unguarded crossings in Valencia County. The senator has sent letters to Gov. Bill Richardson, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Sanchez also plans to speak with members of MRCOG about the possibility of slowing the speed of the Rail Runner during certain parts of the train's route.
Sanchez says he spoke briefly with the governor, but most of the funding would have to be secured at the federal level.
“We're not giving up,” Sanchez said. “If we haven't heard back from anyone by the end of the month, I'll send out reminder letters until we can find out what can be done.”
While he's spoken with some of his constituents, who, he says, are interested in quiet zones, Sanchez' primary focus for the time being is making private and unguarded crossings safe.
Sanchez' efforts won't directly affect the construction of the quiet zones, but Heinrich says the two projects are related. “Anything that brings attention to railroad crossings in New Mexico is a good thing, whether it's to make them safer or more quiet,” Heinrich says. “I think Sen. Sanchez is absolutely doing the right thing for his constituents.”
Federal regulations say quiet zones should be a half-mile long, though conductors are still allowed to blow their whistles if it's necessary.
Heinrich plans to meet with MRCOG before the upcoming Legislative Session to determine what progress has been made and what still needs to be done. Lawrence Rael, executive director of MRCOG, says construction along the Menaul to Osuna corridor should be completed by the end of December or January, but the $775,000 appropriated by the Legislature isn't enough to cover the cost of building quiet zones at all the Rail Runner crossings. “We have enough for the corridor,” Rael says. “There are other areas where there is interest in getting quiet zones, such as Downtown, but more money would be needed.” Heinrich says he would discuss funding needs during his meeting with MRCOG.
A resolution passed by the City Council in October 2006 mandated all quiet zones be constructed by 2009.
“The [Rail Runner] commuter rail is a great improvement for the community but the quiet zones are important as well,” Heinrich says. “Those trains can make a lot of noise, especially for residents who live close to the tracks. So it's a real quality-of-life issue.”