by Allison Milionis

Neighborhood Notes

August 2, 2010

You can hear them coming, first the horn, then the rumble, creaks and grinding of steel wheels bearing down on steel rails. From a distance, the sounds conjure up wistful images of travel and youthful freedom. But all that lovely imagery dissipates as the train nears and the engineer sounds the horn before reaching a railway/road crossing—three times on the approach, and an extra long one for good measure.

On a hill above Columbia Boulevard in North Portland, a sound meter set up by Bureau of Development Services Noise Control Officer, Paul van Orden, reads the decibel level of a passing freight train. The needle hits 96 dB—just below the sound level of a pneumonic jackhammer but way above a wood planer—each time the engineer lays on the horn. Now, multiply that by three and then again by the number of crossings the train will make as it goes to and from the Port.

For residents of neighborhoods along Portland’s railroad and transit routes, this relentless horn blowing can severely impact quality of life. “The Board is concerned about noise,” says Angela Moos, Chair of the Kenton Neighborhood Association (KNA). “It’s a key livability issue in the Kenton neighborhood.”

Moos volunteered to help van Orden monitor sound levels in Kenton on a couple of warm Saturday afternoons. Although their primary objective was to monitor sound levels coming from Portland International Raceway (PIR), Moos says she was shocked by the noise level of the train horns.

“From where I live near Lombard, I can hear the trains. But I had no idea it was this loud for residents who live on the north side of Kenton.”

The KNA recently sent out a survey to residents about the noise from PIR. Moos says they will do another survey on train noise and also encourage the Noise Committee to become a more vocal presence at City Hall.

Ten Years and No Quiet Zone to Show For It

Not far away, Cathedral Park residents are also gearing up to take on the train horns, again. Not only does the community contend with the 24-hour whistles but also, the nightly unloading and loading of cars and trucks from ships to freight trains bound for dealers around the nation.

Last month, Cathedral Park residents heard that construction on nearby Peninsula Tunnel would reroute even more train traffic through St. Johns. Brock Nelson, Union Pacific Railroad Director of Corporate Relations and Media for the Western Region, confirmed that wasn’t the case, but didn’t deny that future work on nearby railways could redirect rail traffic through St. Johns.

Barbara Quinn, chair of the Friends of Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association, says they don’t want to stop commerce but she feels there is a way for industry and the railroads to work with communities that are impacted by excessive train, crane and truck noise.

The completion of the Pearl District Quiet Zone last month is a case in point.

“The difference is funding sources,” says Quinn. She says Cathedral Park residents have been trying to get a “Whistle Free Zone” in their community for 10 years.

The Pearl District Quiet Zone was partly paid for by Hoyt Street Properties, a developer with a vested interest in resolving noise issues for residents and potential buyers. The other half came out of the coffers of the Portland Development Commission. When all is said and done, the price tag for adapting three roadway/railroad crossings near Union Station will be over $280,000. That’s a lot of cash for communities that don’t have a developer in their back pocket.

Another difference between the Pearl and Cathedral Park however, is the number and complexity of the crossings. There are no crossing gates in Cathedral Park—never have been—and there is a four block stretch on Bradford Street with roadway and railroad tracks on top of one another. Also, six crossings zigzag streets within the targeted zone. An entire chunk of rail would have to be moved 10 feet west of Bradford Street and gates installed at all the crossings.

A master plan developed by the Port of Portland, which has been rallying for rail and road improvements in St. Johns for several years, breaks down the work schedule into three phases. The first phase addresses the messy rail and road conditions on Bradford Street. The second phase upgrades crossings in the Whistle Free Zone and the final phase makes street improvements and major realignments of Bradford and Baltimore streets at the intersection. While the plan clearly addresses the crossing improvements needed for quiet zones, a major goal is to enhance neighborhood livability. The design includes a new park and significant improvements to pedestrian paths and crossings.

Although the cost for this ambitious project is estimated at $8.2 million, Sebastian Degens of the Port of Portland says that the area is long over due for an overhaul. “The creation of the quiet zone would be implementing other public improvements that should have already been made,” he says.

The master plan was adopted by the city council but it hasn’t gone forward on capital improvements. Degens says the Port has applied for federal and regional funds. They even appealed to the developers constructing condominiums in the St. Johns area. Aside from a pending Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) application, they haven’t had much luck at attracting money to the project.

Noise Contributes to Bad Health and Behavior

The FRA requires that a locomotive engineer sound the horn, two long, one short, and one long before reaching a crossing, with an option to add more if he/she thinks it’s necessary. However, public authorities—cities, for example—can file for a quiet zone with the FRA provided they add supplemental or alternative safety measures such as flashing lights and gates or wayside horns at the crossings within the specified zone. It’s an expensive and slow undertaking but in terms of quality of life and overall health of a community, eradicating the head splitting sound of train horns should be a top priority for any city government.

The World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Community Noise state that noise is an increasing public health problem, listing adverse health effects such as hearing loss, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular and psychophysiologic problems, performance reduction, annoyance responses and adverse social behavior.

According to Noise Free America, a nonprofit grassroots organization with chapters nationwide, (currently, there are none established in Oregon) noise levels above 80 decibels “are associated with an increase in aggressive behavior.” And the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Americans cite noise as one of the biggest problems—above crime—affecting their neighborhoods.

Why then, with all the research available proving the negative impact noise has on public health, is it so difficult to adapt train crossings in our communities?

“The challenge is getting the money,” says van Orden. “It tends to get diverted to more popular projects.”

Indeed, on July 8, the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) and the Metro Council approved the direction for the 2014-15 regional flexible fund allocation program, which consists of federal transportation dollars intended to support livable communities, sustaining economic growth and safety. This would have been a chance to allocate some of the funds toward helping neighborhoods create quiet zones like the one in the Pearl District. But that was not the case.

The money that might have been used toward quiet zones didn’t make it past the short list because there are so many other popular projects—such as bikeways, pedestrian paths and transit—competing for dollars. (No freight projects were funded.) Last year, the Port of Portland made a $3 million request for flexible funds for the Cathedral Park plan, to no avail. In fact, the money went to a pedestrian bridge in Wilsonville and a project in Southeast.

What will it take to attract money for quiet zones in Cathedral Park, Kenton, and anywhere else residents suffer from freight train horn blasts?

“We’re going to need neighborhood and business support to make it happen [in Cathedral Park]. It’s not enough to have the Port advocating for this project,” says Degens. “It was our top priority going into it [masterplan] but it wasn’t anyone elses.”

That puts pressure on Quinn and her North Portland neighbors to make a lot of their own kind of noise. “We’re regrouping,” she says.