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Will quiet zones help you sleep at night?

Winter Park’s Central Park station is planned to have SunRail trains running through it as early as 2013.

Winter Park’s Central Park station is planned to have SunRail trains running through it as early as 2013.

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William Shallcross Jr.

If it ain’t about downtown or SunRail, forgetaboutit.

Boy have I been asleep at the switch. You have to watch our municipal government like a hawk.

While I have been diligently working to raise the city’s consciousness on both liability exposure and traffic safety issues — particularly bicycle and pedestrian — they’ve been diligently pursuing another agenda: installing way-finding signs — seemingly eschewing modern-day GPS and smartphone apps — and seeking $3.2 million to install railroad “quiet zones” in the name of safety. And that’s $3.2 million in addition to an undisclosed amount for safety improvements by SunRail at all the same Winter Park crossings.

Well, they’ll tell you it’s about safety, while it’s really about noise abatement — something they started pursuing in 2006 when the cost was estimated at $2 million.

I will digress to set the stage before conveying the rich irony and misguidedness of these so-called quiet zones as part of the city’s philosophy in general (as well as the Feds).

In the city’s 2011 Traffic and Transportation Plan there are 17 proposed transportation projects totaling tens of millions of dollars with only four funded, and only one of those funded by the city through its CRA – for way-finding signs (recently installed).

In addition, there are 52 pedestrian and bicycle circulation projects planned, all of which are “unfunded/seeking grants.”

You see, in an outdated model of relying on state and federal largess, Winter Park will only do new improvements if funded from somewhere else. This is why the mayor can crow that the city’s ad valorem taxes aren’t being raised while revenues are down.

But if you’ve looked, you will have noticed that almost all traffic improvements in Winter Park are on state roads, because that money is the easiest to obtain, and we coattail on FDOT maintenance projects.

And what else may have you noticed? Traffic control signs are dirty, missing and/or obscured by trees and shrubbery; thermoplastic road striping at intersections and crosswalks are badly worn and in need of replacement; and my street, for example, has had a broken curb and gutter and deteriorated asphalt for years.

In addition, our Commission loves resolutions. If they smell cash, they use these as an odd way of putting out word that they are looking for money for projects they are unwilling to underwrite themselves but still desire.

I really don’t “get” this quiet zone initiative. Trains have been running through Winter Park night and day for decades. With SunRail (and the economy in the hopper), there will be many fewer freight trains, and though more passenger trains, they will be very short – only three cars. The passenger trains have shrouded (directional) horns to minimize noise pollution; and they run only during the day when some of us may be napping, but not necessarily sleeping. This is why we must have quiet zones.

But the crowning irony is that this whole train whistle noise issue is driven by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., who have devised a one-size-fits-all rule to governing noise, which requires overkill for an urban railway with tight curves and necessarily slow moving trains. Train whistles in rural areas with signal-less crossings? Of course. In urban areas already equipped with gates and bells? Not so much.

And now on to financing: $0 to $703,000 per crossing, and that’s no typo – zero dollars is for one they intend to close.

Apparently there is money left on the track – so to speak – from the estimated cost of the SunRail station. In a use-it-or-lose-it philosophy, Winter Park wants to redeploy that excess for quiet zones. But to justify that it must expend the funds in or around the SunRail station, which isn’t exactly where most train whistle-afflicted sleepers reside. Hence, the resolution to fund the shortfall to “silence” at all Winter Park crossings. But goodness!

This is the priority of our Commission – not maintaining the infrastructure we have in place; not enhancing bicycle, pedestrian (and traffic) safety in Winter Park as we and others induce more people to bike and walk; not interconnecting our bike lanes and multiuse trails; not bringing our school crosswalks into the 21st century; and not providing sidewalks throughout Winter Park on at least one side of the street and on both within walking distance of all our schools.

You want sidewalks or traffic calming on your block? The first question the city will ask is: How do you intend to fund it? Just imagine if we created a special assessment district for only those residents who will truly benefit from quiet zones. The topic would be dead in the water.

Oh well, life goes on.

William Shallcross Jr. is a civil engineering consultant licensed in Florida since 1983. He has resided in Winter Park since 2003.