Modesto officials do not have a quick solution for people who are awakened at night by blaring train whistles.
City staff members are trying to set up a meeting with representatives of four government agencies, the Public Utilities Commission and two railroads to consider establishing "quiet zones" in central and south Modesto.
Setting up the meeting could take a few more weeks. After that, the next step could be hiring a consultant to conduct a study on the rail crossing improvements needed to establish quiet zones.
Inside the zones, trains are exempted from the federal horn-blowing rules that have generated complaints from some residents.
City Planning Manager Patrick Kelly said he knew of no funding to pay for the study or the quiet zone improvements. Council members told staff to schedule the meeting after hearing a report this month.
"It could take awhile, but this is a step forward by getting the Federal Railroad Administration involved," Councilman Joe Muratore said.
Other entities expected to attend the meeting are Stanislaus County, the California Department of Transportation, the Union Pacific Railroad and Modesto & Empire Traction Co.
The city hears frequent complaints about train horns, which have gotten louder since federal rules were adopted in 2005 and enforced in the past two years.
Locomotives must sound their horns at 96 to 110 decibels at all street crossings. In March, Modesto council members ordered staff to investigate the number of crossings in the city and options such as street closures to reduce the noise.
Staff found that train horns startle residents within a mile of the Union Pacific line through central Modesto and bother guests at the DoubleTree Hotel. Also affected are residential areas near the Modesto & Empire line, which has more than a dozen crossings paralleling Yosemite Boulevard in south Modesto.
Two of the M&ET crossings are in the city; the others are in the county.
In addition, trains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line blow horns at three crossings in east Modesto.
Officials said they will first try to address the problem in central and south Modesto, where the impact is more widespread.
Change has a price
The quiet zones require upgrades to rail crossings such as warning signals, special gates, medians and wayside horns. Instead of blowing their whistles, approaching trains trigger the stationary horns directed at traffic.
Plans for the improvements must be approved by several agencies, including the railroads.
The county has studied a quiet zone for Empire, starting with a meeting a year ago with state and federal transportation officials and the railroads with crossings in the town. County engineers estimated the cost of wayside horn improvements at $933,500 and intersection upgrades at $329,000.
Modesto staff looked at options for reducing the noise by closing streets that intersect with the M&ET line in the airport neighborhood, but concluded that only Santa Rita and Santa Ana avenues were potential candidates. Both streets are outside the city.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.