After two years of bureaucratic wrangling, residents of Alta Vista and Beacon Hill are relieved to hear the sound of…silence. Trains that roll through the neighborhood will no longer be required to blow their horns at the numerous railroad crossings on the Union Pacific line.
“I slept six hours straight last night thanks to the Quiet Zone,” said local resident Bob Comeaux. He also read a letter from state Rep. Diego Bernal at a ceremony to celebrate the quiet zone on Friday. Dozens of residents, community activists, politicians and others gathered at the ceremony at Hausmann Millworks art gallery, right next to the railroad tracks.
Speakers at the ceremony included Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1), Comeaux, Mike Brazytis from Union Pacific, Transportation and Capital Improvements Director Mike Frisbie, and Alta Vista Neighborhood Association President Erin Zayko.
According to Brazytis, the Union Pacific line was built in the 1880s as part of the International & Great Northern Railroad. The neighborhoods were platted soon after that, and a passenger rail depot was actually built near Hollywood Avenue, where residents could hop onto passenger trains heading downtown.
“Over the years, train traffic has grown from 15 to 20 trains a week to 15 or 20 trains a day,” Doggett said. Fueling this growth has been multiple factors, including increased trade with Mexico and the Eagle Ford Shale oil boom.
Exacerbating the problem is the way the neighborhood was laid out. Aganier Avenue in Beacon Hill and Ripley Avenue in Alta Vista run parallel to the tracks. On each side, rows of bungalows literally have the trains running through their backyards. On other streets, homes were built a few feet from the tracks.
New residents in the neighborhoods are often surprised by the magnitude of the noise. Although they may have been aware of the train tracks when they bought their homes, they are often caught unaware until a train goes past at 3 a.m. The noise problem has been frequently discussed on neighborhood Facebook pages, second only to stray dog issues.
Creating a Quiet Zone is not a simple task. Physical improvements need to be made. Options include double crossing gates, one-way conversions, street closures or curbs along the middle of the street to block motorists from going around the gates. In this case, the City chose to install curbs; no streets were closed.
There are 11 crossings in the zone, although the crossing at Hickman Street has not yet been approved.
There is also a bureaucratic aspect to the process. The City is responsible for the safety improvements, which are then approved by Union Pacific and the Federal Railroad Administration. The work is reviewed and improvements have to be made. In this case, the process took over two years before final approval was granted – not an unusual amount of time.
Former Councilmember Bernal was instrumental in getting the ball rolling. In meetings with neighborhood associations, he quickly became aware that a Quiet Zone was the number one priority among residents. Bernal was able to secure funding for the project, and his staff worked diligently to shepherd it through the bureaucratic process. When Treviño came on board, he and his staff were able to finalize the process.
“This is the 11th Quiet Zone in the city,” noted Frisbie. Other zones include the Haven for Hope area, Olmos Park Terrace and a zone near Dignowity Hill on the Eastside.
The process of creating this Quiet Zone didn’t occur without some problems. The curbs present a challenge homeowners who have driveways along them. One homeowner on Magnolia Avenue took matters into her own hands by running over the freshly-poured concrete curb with her truck.
Alta Vista resident Merilu Moreno-Smith is currently engaged in a dispute with the city about the curb that runs in front of her home on Elsmere Place.
“It’s the longest curb on the narrowest street in the neighborhood,” she said. Moreno-Smith runs a home-based massage therapy business. “I’m still the parking valet for some of my patrons,” she said, many of whom are elderly and have difficulty navigating the tight spot created by the curbs.
Moreno-Smith will soon be going into mediation with the City to resolve her issues. “All I want is my aggregate back,” referring to the changes made to her front yard by crews installing the curbs. “I have to put my garbage can in front of my neighbor’s house because there’s no room.”
The narrow street with no sidewalks present a challenge to pedestrians and motorists alike.
A Quiet Zone, however, doesn’t mean the sound of train horns will completely disappear. Engineers can use their horns at their discretion if they perceive there is a safety issue, such as a motorist attempting to go around the crossing gates.
In addition, decades of habit can be hard to break. As I write this article (I live two blocks from the tracks), an engineer is blowing his horn in customary fashion – the signal is actually the letter “Q” in Morse Code – as he rolls through the neighborhood.
Regardless, the majority of residents are ecstatic about the implementation of the Quiet Zone. There are a few, however, who actually enjoyed the sound.
“I’m really gonna miss hearing the train and I’m completely sincere with my comment,” said resident Desiree Garza-Suniga in a Facebook post. Regardless, there is currently no active opposition to the Quiet Zone.
“Trains can take a mile to stop,” said Brazytis, making the point that awareness is important for motorists. “Don’t try to save a few seconds. Be patient at railroad crossings.”
As part of safety awareness efforts, both neighborhood associations will be putting forth that message in upcoming newsletters.
Sometimes, it’s little things like these that can improve the quality of life for so many San Antonio residents. Although the cost wasn’t outrageous to install the necessary curbs and signage, it took a great deal of time and effort amongst City staffers to make this happen.
*Featured/top image: “No Train Horn” signs are finally unveiled. Photo by Page Graham.