A train sweeps through downtown Kent while blaring its horn as motorists wait patiently to cross the tracks on West Gowe Street. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

A train sweeps through downtown Kent while blaring its horn as motorists wait patiently to cross the tracks on West Gowe Street. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

City of Kent targets railroad quiet zone in 2022

Engineers could lay off horns at 13 downtown crossings

Train horns could finally go silent in downtown Kent in 2022.

The Kent City Council and city staff continue to work with BNSF Railway, Union Pacific (UP) Railroad, the Federal Railroad Administration, the state Department of Transportation and the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to bring a quiet zone to town between South 212th Street and South 259th Street.

With so many agencies involved, it’s been a long, slow process.

Mill Creek neighborhood residents raised the noise issue with the council in 2011 to improve the safety around railroad crossings so engineers would no longer have to sound their horns as they speed through Kent crossings. The council has studied the issue since, although it first heard a staff report about a quiet zone in 2005 after the Federal Railroad Administration provided the requirements for a public authority to establish and maintain a quiet zone, according to city documents.

“This is becoming real,” Councilmember Dennis Higgins said at the May 21 council meeting. “This is something we’ve talked about for years. I encourage people to start paying attention to this again because it’s real.”

Higgins said the BNSF tracks could be ready by January 2022 and the UP tracks by June 2022 under a timeline released in May by Rob Brown, city transportation engineering manager, to the council’s Public Works Committee. The quiet zone might be ready sooner, but 2022 is the more realistic date because of the numerous steps required.

The council has approved a $3 million budget to establish a quiet zone. The funds would pay for railroad safety measure upgrades (traffic signals, flashing lights, medians, gates, pylons, signs, fencing) at as many as 13 crossings. City officials plan to use funds from the business and occupation tax to pay for the project. Federal regulations require locomotive horns be sounded before entering all public grade crossings unless a jurisdiction has established a quiet zone with improved safety features.

“I used to harbor hope this would happen before I departed,” said Higgins, whose term began in 2010, will leave the council in November. “I know that won’t happen, but I know the mayor is committed to this so I have confidence it will continue on.”

Council President Bill Boyce told Higgins to remain confident.

“I know this has been a real passion of yours and I really appreciate you pushing that through,” Boyce said. “As you leave us in November, we will make sure we carry the torch and follow through and hopefully when it’s all done you can come back and celebrate with us.”

Council members and downtown residents would celebrate an end to the loud horns that disrupt sleep and conversations. City staff has worked with UP and BNSF Railway officials to come up with a safety plan so horns are only needed in emergencies rather than each time a train approaches a traffic crossing. The Federal Railroad Administration must sign off on a final agreement.

The city submitted an application April 3 to the federal agency to establish a quiet zone on the BNSF line with the planned crossing modifications. That started a 60-day comment period (which just ended) where the railroads (BNSF, Sound Transit, Amtrak), the state Department of Transportation and the state Utilities and Transportation Commission could submit comments related to the application before the Federal Railroad Administration makes a determination.

“We are waiting to hear back from them,” Brown said at the June 3 Public Works Committee meeting. “I’m expecting good things, I think our calculations are sound. It’s a matter of waiting for them to respond.”

Brown told the council committee it was uncertain how long the federal agency would take before it makes a decision. Any challenges by railroad companies could delay the process by as many as 15 months. It is expected to take up to 10 months to install the modifications to the crossings once the city gets the OK to begin work.

The railroad companies also will need to issue permits to the city for work on the crossings. Once the work is done, the railroads need to approve the modifications before the quiet zone can be implemented.

City staff is working with the state Department of Transportation about the Willis Street crossings because the street is a state highway, State Route 516.

QUIET ZONES

BNSF grade crossings

(east side of downtown)

• South 259th Street

• Willis Street

• Titus Street

• Gowe Street

• Meeker Street

• Smith Street

• James Street

• South 212th Street

Union Pacific grade crossings

(west of downtown)

• Willis Street

• West Smith Street

• West Meeker Street

• West James Street

• South 212th Street

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