n Costs have risen in wake of Feb. 18 crash, but desire for quiet zones still great
by Paul Rignell
The city of Elk River will proceed with plans to earn “quiet zone” distinction from the Federal Railroad Administration along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, where an estimated 60 to 70 trains per day transport corn and other crops and goods.
A traffic incident last February where the tracks cross Jackson Avenue, however, will increase the capital plans that the city must take before the FRA will grant a quiet zone.
Early in the evening of Feb. 18, according to investigators, the driver of a vehicle ignored flashing lights and a railroad stop arm at the Jackson Avenue crossing in an effort to pass over the tracks before an oncoming train could reach the intersection.
The vehicle became stuck on the tracks, and it was hit by two trains – one traveling northbound and one southbound – before occupants of the car escaped with minor injuries.
The incident left Elk River with a higher risk index for that crossing, and under that scenario the city would need to plan and build a four-quadrant gate system encompassing the tracks at Jackson Avenue in effort to prevent a similar crash.
More work would carry greater costs. While budgeting for 2014, the city planned $500,000 from street reserves to fund railroad improvements toward qualifying for quiet zone status.
A four-quadrant gate system and other new projects would nearly triple the bill for work that is still to be done to an estimated $1.35 million.
City Council members said that establishing a quiet zone, where train operators would be prohibited from sounding their horns through the city, would be of benefit and is of interest to Elk River residents.
But staff at the July 7 council meeting did not have funds identified from which the city might support an extra $850,000 in rail improvements.
Council Member Stewart Wilson asked about waiting for the work until after the FRA’s risk index at Jackson Avenue becomes more favorable for the city.
City Engineer Justin Femrite replied that the city could expect that risk index to remain at its position for at least a year or two.
All of the council expressed concern for the occupants of that car Feb. 18.
“The people in that vehicle were fortunate to walk away with (only) bumps and bruises,” Council Member Matt Westgaard said.
But the near-tragic, daring maneuver of one driver is also leaving the city with a much more critical decision. “People actually broke the law (driving around a stop arm), and that’s going to cost the city $850,000,” Mayor John Dietz said.
Council members directed staff to identify and bring forward further funding options within 60 days. They gave very little consideration July 7 to an option for closing Jackson Avenue access at Highway 10.
“I highly doubt that we could close the Jackson Street crossing,” said Mayor Dietz. “Wouldn’t that just be a nightmare?”