Downtown quiet zone future looks bleak

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Quiet zones are a step closer for several South Austin neighborhoods along the Union Pacific rail line. The city now has the railroad’s cost estimate for safety upgrades to five crossings – a necessary component before trains stop sounding their horns.

Watch our quiet zone investigation here .

Union Pacific agreed to begin engineering studies last July to determine what improvements were needed and how much they would cost the city. Raquel Espinoza, a UP spokeswoman, said that amount is around $800,000, though the city said that amount could change during negotiations regarding the following crossings:

  • Matthews Lane
  • Stassney Lane
  • Banister Lane
  • Oltorf Street
  • Mary Street

Leah Fillion, a transportation spokeswoman with the City of Austin, said the improvements would likely include: potential mode adjustment in the existing constant warning time device, extension of the existing gate arms, and installation of the constant warning time device.

The city’s transportation department estimated the installation of that equipment would take between six months and a year. That timeframe cannot begin until the city and railroad come to a final agreement on the cost and construction.

Fillion said the city is currently reviewing the railroad’s report and further details regarding that report would not be available while the two entities are negotiating. With legal and contractual matters, there is no set deadline.

Meanwhile, the possibility of two additional quiet zones in Downtown Austin seems bleak. After residents complained about trains sounding their horns at two private crossings – Pressler and Paul Streets – the city and Union Pacific began looking into the matter. Horns are not supposed to sound at private crossings, unless there is an emergency or a safety concern.

Now, Union Pacific says the noise of horns will continue at those two crossings, after railroad engineers studied the area.

“Horns have been there a long time,” said Espinoza. “People have been used to hearing it.”

She said a nearby curve in the tracks prevents a plain view of sight between cars and trains, though both crossings dead end. However, an additional concern lies with pedestrians crossing the tracks in this area.

“We are struggling with trespassing farther down the tracks,” she added. “It’s very dangerous having people crossing there without warning.”

Nearby, close to the old Seaholm Power Plant, the railroad and city have been in talks about constructing a fence to prevent people from crossing the tracks there. At this time, the railroad has not said whether such a structure would re-open the door for quiet zones at Pressler and Paul.

Regardless, the city says that project has been delayed by the railroad so it can first make upgrades to the tracks and bridge in that area. Union Pacific was not able to provide an update at this time but plans to get back to KXAN in the near future.

Another railroad safety measure is going forward though. The city is coordinating with Union Pacific to install an “at-grade pedestrian crossing at North Lamar Boulevard southbound frontage road-West 3rd Street and the railroad tracks to provide a safe crossing location.”

“The pedestrian crossing will be located on the west side of the North Lamar Boulevard Underpass,” Schatz said this week in a letter to a concerned citizen. “The survey field work for the design has been recently completed and the design is anticipated to be completed by February 2013.”

However, the city said construction of that pedestrian crossing will not be scheduled until the railroad has reviewed and approved the design.