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Tracking the noise; Train horns in Wadena aren't fading away anytime soon

Those who have been kept up late at night or had their conversation with friends drowned out by the horns of trains passing through Wadena will most likely will have to continue dealing with the noise.

There is a solution that exists for noisy trains, called a "quiet zone," which is an area the Federal Railroad Administration sets up so that train operators don't have to automatically sound their horns as they go through town. However, the idea of a quiet zone in Wadena has been kicking around for almost a decade with little results, City Administrator Brad Swenson said, adding that so far the main hang-up has been the hefty price tag the city would have to cover for the project.

"There's no grants that we know of, the railroad won't pay any of the costs associated with doing it," Swenson said. "We'd basically have to use our own funds to pay for this, from what I've learned."

As previously reported, the city would have to install additional safety measures at rail crossings to compensate for the increased risk that a lack of train horns potentially poses to people near the tracks. The Draft Transportation Plan for Wadena commissioned by MnDOT last year includes options for installing quiet zone safety measures at three crossings in town: First Street Southeast, Highway 71/Jefferson Street and Second Street Southwest.

The firm hired by MnDOT to conduct the study, SRF Consulting, suggested two possible ways of constructing the additional safety measures in order to satisfy federal requirements. Both ways are similar in that they call for medians ranging from 30-100 feet long to be built near the crossings, and the closing-off of road access for certain buildings with accesses close to a crossing.

However, the first option involves a three-arm crossing gate on Highway 71/Jefferson Street, which costs an estimated $650,000 to construct. Although the quiet zone without the three-arm gate construction costs only $170,000 for all three crossings in town, it eliminates less risk, according to SRF's report. Both options fall within federal safety requirements.

The quiet zone improvements SRF gave as options would actually improve crossing safety in Wadena, said Craig Vaughn, senior associate at SRF.

When Vaughn presented the draft transportation plan on behalf of SRF in a joint meeting of the Wadena City Council and Wadena Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday, questions were raised about the quiet zone's effect on safety specifically for pedestrians.

"With the train speeds going through here and the amount of traffic that we have, one of the biggest detriments is the pedestrian traffic," Commissioner Ron Noon said later. "There's a lot of traffic 24 hours just walking through. I think it becomes a safety issue as far as pedestrians."

SRF Senior Associate Andy Mielke later clarified that although SRF did not include pedestrian safety risks in their projections, safety measures specifically geared toward pedestrians, such as chain link fencing running parallel to the tracks on one side, were recommended as part of the research process.

SRF representatives asked the city council to provide any comments they had on the transportation plan by March 15, and to keep SRF informed of when the decision to adopt the plan would go to a vote.