Quiet zone may benefit town, but at what cost?

JENN IRELAND/Arizona Daily Sun<br>
Kelly Simonson covers her ears as a train blows its horn while passing by the Fanning Street railroad crossing in Flagstaff in December 2007. During the test, people from around town gathered at the crossing or in their homes to listen to the comparison of wayside horns versus regular train horns that could reduce the amount of noise produced by trains passing through town.

JENN IRELAND/Arizona Daily Sun<br> Kelly Simonson covers her ears as a train blows its horn while passing by the Fanning Street railroad crossing in Flagstaff in December 2007. During the test, people from around town gathered at the crossing or in their homes to listen to the comparison of wayside horns versus regular train horns that could reduce the amount of noise produced by trains passing through town.

KINGMAN - With Flagstaff just days away from instituting a citywide "quiet zone" along its railroad crossings, many businesses - especially hotels - are looking forward to ending the ear-piercing train whistles that keep their customers up at night.

"The hotel guys are the ones who are most concerned about it," said Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce Vice President Joe Gali. "For folks not familiar with the community, they'll come in, they'll stay at the hotels, and the horns will keep them up all night, then they'll go online and write a poor review."

As the main line from Los Angeles to Chicago, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad through Flagstaff carries as many as 120 trains a day, with each required to sound its whistle as it approaches each of the city's five crossings. With many hotels located along Route 66 just parallel to the railroad tracks, the trains have caused unending trouble for both employees and guests alike.

"Namely, we hear 'I'm never going to come to Flagstaff again because of that train,'" said one hotel desk clerk who preferred not to give her name. "It all goes hand in hand with the Flagstaff experience, but that doesn't always appease the people who can't sleep at night. We get constant complaints all year."

The trains have been a pain for the Chamber of Commerce as well, since it, too, is situated next to the tracks. Gali said putting a stop to the constant whistling will prove a major benefit for members attempting to do business there.

"We're very, very excited about the prospect of not having to have the horn blow through the intersection 10 feet away from our office building, and having that horn, that sits about two stories high, blowing us out of our conference room anywhere from 75 to 125 times a day," he said.

But Gali noted the process hasn't been an easy one, with Flagstaff taking five years and spending roughly $950,000 on the studies, engineering and equipment required to get its quiet zone in place. Even now, residents on the city's east side are still lobbying for the city to spend additional money to replace their wayside horns that emulate the sound of the train whistle with less noisy but more expensive alternatives such as multiple gates or concrete medians.

Additionally, Gali said the quiet zone is only now coming online, more than a year after the original anticipated installation date. That's because, while the city did its due diligence with BNSF and the Federal Railroad Administration, they failed to realize that the Arizona Corporation Commission had a part in the process too. "The city was under the impression they could move forward after reaching an agreement with BNSF, but then the ACC said, 'Wait a minute, we haven't looked at this,'" Gali said. "It's been a long and arduous process, and if you try to seek the same results in Kingman, you need to make sure you get all your i's dotted and t's crossed with the Arizona Corporation Commission so that the project does not get held up any more than it needs to be."

So far, Kingman's leaders have expressed a desire to wait and see how Flagstaff's quiet zones work before pursuing anything similar here. The City Council has scheduled a discussion on the matter at an upcoming meeting, but what remains to be seen is how effective a quiet zone would be for Kingman's two downtown railroad crossings, and whether it'd be worth the estimated $800,000 cost.

"It wouldn't be something that'd need to be collected the following year, but if the city's going to put $800,000 into it, would it make an $800,000 impact?" asked Joshua Noble, director of tourism for the Kingman Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Most of the hotels in town currently aren't affected by the train noise since the Airway Underpass project was completed and the Louise Avenue crossing was closed. So, you're not looking at the total population of hotels that would have an impact from people choosing to stay there because of the quiet zone."

All the same, Noble noted, the trains did have a clear effect on business at the now-defunct Hotel Brunswick, which is currently seeking a new owner after closing last month. According to former Brunswick Owner and Manager Debra Sixta, the trains were one of the main deterrents to tourists spending the night there.

"The people would walk in, hear the trains, and walk back out. That happened a lot," she said.

But while a quiet zone might restore viability to the venerable hotel, Noble said, would that alone justify the cost?

"It's a difficult question to answer," he said. "I think it would have some impact on the people overnighting, but when you look at the visitors coming in, the train is part of the downtown area's heritage."