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Perham approves study on 'quiet zones'

What would it take to silence those loud train whistles in Perham?

The city is about to find out.

At a meeting Monday, city councilors voted to move forward with a study that will provide a rough idea of the cost of creating 'quiet zones' at several railroad crossings in town.

The study will be conducted by SRF Consulting Group out of Fargo, which has helped nearly 30 other cities in Minnesota and North Dakota through this same process. 

The council approved just an initial study, at least for now, but could request more comprehensive information later on for an additional fee. The basic version approved Monday has a price tag of $7,750. 

From it, councilors will get a sense of the scale of safety improvements needed at the crossings; and from that, they can glean a ballpark estimate of what the total project might cost. 

At that point, they said, they could present the information to the community for public input - and eventually, if it came to it, they would likely hold a referendum vote on the matter.

The basic study takes anywhere from 30 to 90 days to complete. 

So far, councilors have gotten positive feedback from people in the community on the idea of quiet zones.

"I haven't had anybody have a negative reaction to this idea," said councilor Fred Lemkuhl, making particular mention of the business community. "I certainly think we should get this going."

Mayor Tim Meehl agreed, saying he's had people ask him, "Why not? Why wouldn't you do this?"

One answer to that, as councilor Harriet Mattfeld pointed out, is because of the costs involved. Creating quiet zones could turn out to be an expensive project. She was adamant that she would not vote in favor of any large project like this without the public's consent.

"We need to know the cost, and it has to go to the people for a vote," she said. "And they've got to know what it's going to cost."

Councilor James Johnson thought moving ahead with the initial study would "give us a good enough handle on it" to be able to go to voters and then "see where we go from there."

The council has been considering the study for the last couple of months, but was waiting to meet with an SRF consultant before making any final decisions. Rick Lane, a Principal with the company, was on hand at Monday's meeting to answer questions.

Lane said the cost of quiet zones varies greatly depending on how many crossings are included and what kinds of safety improvements are required. 

In one smaller town SRF has worked with, the price tag was $40,000; but in big cities with multiple crossings, it can add up to millions of dollars. 

Lane has seen cities finance quiet zones through grants, TIF financing and assessments on those within the "wall of sound."

One thing Perham has going for it, in terms of cost, is that the city is already working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on improvements to two "high risk" crossings in town. Lane said those improvements would likely have been needed to meet quiet zone requirements; since they're already being funded through state and federal sources, the city will be spared that expense.

"Now's a good time to be looking at this," Lane said.

Quiet zones only apply to train whistles; train speed, pedestrian bells and other noises are not affected. Train engineers will still sound the whistle any time they see a potential safety issue, so even in a quiet zone people may occasionally hear a loud whistle.

Due to added safety measures at 'quiet zone' crossings, Lane said, there tend to be fewer accidents and safety incidents than in regular zones. Pedestrian incidents, in particular, are reduced by extra precautions such as fencing at crossings.