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Railroad forcing Vero to come up with $3 million in 'hush' money

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 16, 2014)

The City of Vero Beach will have to figure out how to come up with an unexpected $3 million in “hush” money this year if it doesn’t want residents serenaded by the loud horns of All-Aboard Florida express trains that will be racing through town 32 times a day at speeds up to 110 miles per hour.

While the passenger trains, which are expected to start running between Miami and Orlando in 2015, will not stop here – thus providing no benefit to Vero – communities up and down the coast appear to have only two choices:  brace for the horns or pay big bucks to install “quiet zones” at train crossings.

For Vero Beach, the cost of quelling the horns would amount to about $3 million for the city’s seven crossings – and there’s not a whole lot of time to ponder this huge expense.

"I would say that 2014 is the year that these decisions must be made," railroad lobbyist Russell “Rusty” Roberts told the Vero Beach High-Speed Rail Advisory Commission last week, adding that the quiet zone improvements must be made while the railroad is working in the corridor.

Construction is expected to begin in the second half of 2014.

Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All-Aboard Florida, will need to add a third track in sections of the city to accommodate the extra rail traffic, which will be on top of the existing schedule of freight trains that already roll through Vero.

Former councilman Brian Heady, a member of the advisory panel, said he believes the entire cost of any safety upgrades needed to accommodate All-Aboard Florida should be paid by the railroad.

But Roberts told members that not only the construction but also the design of the quiet zones falls squarely in the laps of the local communities.

"You're going to need to get an engineering study and to hire that engineer is not the railroad's responsibility," Roberts said.

Though Roberts said cost estimates for the quiet zones are also not the railroad’s responsibility, he did put forth a rough figure of $600,000 for the State Road 60 crossing and $400,000 for each of the city’s other six, narrower crossings.

That adds up to approximately $3 million.

The advisory commission, led by Chairman Ken Daige, voted to recommend the city council join with the City of West Palm Beach in petitioning for state transportation funds to defray the cost of the quiet zones.

Commission member Kiernan Moylan, an attorney who said he had worked on similar projects at the federal level and disclosed that he was a “friend” of the railroad lobbyist Roberts, supported the idea of joining West Palm.

But Moylan strongly urged his fellow members not to bank on state funding for the quiet zones.

“Those funds are from gas taxes and other places,” said Moylan, an Indian River Shores resident.

“I’m pretty certain the state’s not going to fund this in any way, shape or form.”

The panel also voted to ask for traffic counts from the city staff so it could start the process of determining if any of the seven Vero crossings could be closed. They identified the one-way crossover from southbound U.S. 1 to 14th Avenue to be most likely to go.

The city would get some credit, possibly $100,000, toward its cost on the quiet zones for closing a crossing, because that’s one less crossing for the railroad to improve.

“That doesn’t go a long way toward the $3 million,” said Vero Mayor Dick Winger, who participated in the meeting from the public podium.

The City of Vero Beach’s general fund budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year is just under $20 million, with about $4 million of that derived from property taxes and the balance from revenue sharing, fees and transfers from the city’s electric, water and sewer utilities, solid waste department, marina and airport. It would seem impossible that the city could find $3 million in that budget to pay for quiet zones.

The commission asked for some data regarding the amount of time it would take for each 900-foot-long train to pass through the city limits. Vice-Chair Don Croteau and Indian River Chamber President Penny Chandler also pressed Roberts for details on what the train would sound like should the city opt to forgo the expense of quiet zones.

“When you have them (crossings) so close together, it sounds something like the guy’s just laying on the horn,” Roberts said, adding that the crossing signal consists of two long sounds, followed by one short sound and one long sound.

When asked how loud the horns would be, Roberts said 90 decibels, but numerous sources state that a train horn is 90 decibels from 500 feet away.

By comparison, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association classifies 90 decibels as “extremely loud” with a passing motorcycle listed at 90 decibels and a pneumatic drill listed as 100 decibels. Occupational safety standards recommend keeping noise below 85 decibels.

But Central Beach resident Joseph Guffanti cautioned the commission to think about pedestrians who might be crossing the train tracks – especially after dark – and who might not expect a train to be going 110 miles per hour through the city.

For those residents, Guffanti said, quiet zones could prove deadly.

Roberts said the existence of a quiet zone would not eliminate the dinging of crossing bells and said there would still be flashing lights.

Chandler asked that Roberts bring a recording of what the horn sounds like to the next commission meeting.

The Vero Beach High-Speed Rail Advisory Commission is set to meet again at 3 p.m. Wednesday in council chambers at city hall.

After a controversy last week regarding confusion over Roberts’ affiliation with the commission, city staff made it clear that Roberts was not a member of the commission – not even a “non-voting member,” which City Attorney Wayne Coment called a “misnomer.”

Roberts therefore sat in the audience and addressed the commission not as a peer, but as a member of the public at the podium. Roberts had applied to City Clerk Tammy Vock be a full-voting member of the commission.