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City council meets about downtown train noise

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Part of effort to create quiet zones

The railroad crossings and the creation of possible quiet zones in and around downtown Gallup were front and center at a recent Gallup City Council special meeting.

The council listened to a presentation by the New Mexico Department of Transportation regarding results of a road safety assesment March 28.

Origins of the project

Mayor Jackie McKinney said during the special meeting that the project safety assessment has been in the works for about eight years, and the council is happy to see progress.

In an April 3 phone call, McKinney said the solution to create quiet zones at Second Street and Third Street was first presented by BNSF Railway in 2011, when he first took office.

However, the first issue to arise in BNSF’s solution was an increase in the project price to create quiet zones. McKinney said the first estimate from BNSF in 2012 was about $1 million, but when the city met with the company again, over a year later, the cost had risen to about $2.1 million.

The more pressing issue, McKinney said, is one that first came up at that time and still stands today.

“If they come in and help us create a quiet zone in the railroad crossings, they would transfer liability of the railroad crossing and right of way onto the city,” McKinney said.

What this means is the City of Gallup would have liability for any kind of train collision, with a vehicle or pedestrian, on BNSF’s right of way, he added.

“We don’t want to assume liability for their trains possibly hitting someone. We don’t want [to deal with] the lawsuits,” he said.

The BNSF solution

BNSF had an answer to create quiet zones and eliminate possible collisions about four years ago, according to McKinney. Their top priority was to close any railroad crossings to pedestrians or vehicles.

This way, BNSF would not have to worry about cars or pedestrians, McKinney said. He added that BNSF offered a cash settlement of $1 million to close the railroad crossings at Second Street and Third Street.

However, the Gallup City Council does not know if this is a viable solution to the train noise problem, McKinney said.

“We don’t know if closing both crossings is a good idea for the connection to north and south sides of Gallup,” he said, adding that the council continually receives feedback from the public. “Just talking to the citizens, [like] the business owners, they like the opportunity to zip across the tracks instead of taking overpasses.”

When switch engines have to drop off cars or back up on the tracks, they can create closures at railroad crossings for upwards of 45 minutes, McKinney said.

He added, however, that while these prolonged closures may be an inconvenience for the community, most Gallup citizens have lived with it for years, and know to take the nearby overpasses when this occurs.

Gallup’s solution

A resolution was passed for NMDOT to conduct the assessment two years ago at the regular meeting on Jan. 24, 2017.

At that meeting, former City Attorney George Kozeliski said NMDOT required a resolution of support to conduct the assessment for the Second Street and Third Street railroad crossings.

The study would help determine if closure of the Third Street crossing is required while converting the Second Street crossing into a two-way street for the implementation of the proposed quiet zone, according to city documents.

The proposed cost of the study was about $100,000. The resolution carried with a 3-1 vote.

During the March 28 meeting, several people from NMDOT spoke about the study and their findings.

Statewide Planning Bureau Chief Jessica Griffin spoke about the Road Safety Assessment team that assembled last August, which consisted of police officers, Public Works Director Stanley Henderson, and City Manager Maryann Ustick, among others.

“The team consisted of a large, diverse group of stakeholders [to conduct the study],” Griffin said, adding that they focused on the railroad crossings near N.M. 118 by Allison Road, Second Street, and Third Street.

Jonathan Kruse, licensed professional engineer with Lee Engineering, was present at the special meeting to describe the survey process.

Kruse said the RSA team’s role was to assess the current corridors near railroad crossings, including what would happen if the nearby streets were closed, not allowing vehicles to pass over the railroad tracks.

In all, Kruse said that four possible long-term corridor alternatives were studied:

The closure of the Third Street railroad crossing, and turning Second Street into a two-way traffic street from Maloney to Highway 66.

Closure of the Third Street crossing, and turning Second Street into a two-way street from Maloney to Green Ave.

Closure of the Second Street crossing, and turning Third Street into a two-way street from Maloney to Highway 66.

No modifications to roadway configurations or traffic flow, but reconstructing railroad crossings with improvements for pedestrians.

Any new construction would have to adhere to public rights-of-way accessibility guidelines standards, according to information given at the meeting. This includes appropriate sidewalk widths, adequate clearance widths on sidewalks, adequate landing spaces at ramps, and compliant railroad crossing surfaces.

Some of the side effects of changing road configurations included an increase in road queuing, or vehicles lining up at crossings, and sometimes stacking pedestrians at crossings, and increased pedestrian trespassing on railroads, according to Kruse.

The RSA team then used the known traffic volume, intersection geometry, and intersection phasing of the railroad crossings to predict how many vehicle crashes may occur near each site.

Information provided at the meeting showed as few as nine railroad crossing collisions and as many as 33, based on the team’s formula.

In addition, the alternative solutions carried project price tags that ranged between $4 million and about $6.2 million, Kruse said.

McKinney asked if there was NMDOT funding that could go towards the project, and was told that there is not at the moment because all the funding is tentative.

Bill Craven, Rail Bureau Chief for NMDOT, said that the city can seek out Section 130 funding, which is a federal program that provides funds for the elimination of hazards at railway-highway crossings.

A collaborative effort

McKinney said April 3 that BNSF has been conducting its own safety assessment study similar to the city’s, but has not shared the results with the city. He said that their first option is likely still closing the Second Street and Third Street crossings.

“[Closing both crossings] has never been brought to council, so we don’t know if it would be supported,” McKinney said.

He added that BNSF’s idea of closing the two crossings led the city to experiment with closing just one of the crossings, and turning the other open street into a two-way lane.

The issue with this, as stated during the special meeting, was that there could be more traffic collisions with cars and pedestrians, McKinney said.

“We don’t want to do anything that makes the safety worse than what it is,” he added.

McKinney said that to make downtown Gallup more customer and business friendly, cutting down on the train noise is a big step in the right direction.

“Until we get BNSF report and merge it with NMDOT and get every entity at the table, we’ll continue to look at viable options to quiet the trains down,” he said.

For the good of the community

Craven said that the project is worth doing because improving the railroad crossing conditions can remove or greatly reduce the hazards that exist for pedestrians.

“[Sidewalk improvements] will discourage trespassing at crossings,” Craven said, adding that the improvements could ultimately save lives.

This sentiment was echoed by Larry Maynard, District Six engineer for NMDOT.

“Saving lives would be an improvement we can all support,” he said.

Despite the conversations at the special meeting, McKinney said that the meeting was all suggestion, a precursor to the work ahead.

Dist. 1 Councilor Linda Garcia asked Maynard for a time frame for the project, and was told that NMDOT would first apply for Section 130 funding to begin planning and then building the sidewalks, a project that could take two to three years.

Maynard was asked by the council if the process could be expedited, and he said the department will keep working on the project, and securing funding for sidewalk construction is the first step.

In all, the city council agreed that reconstructing the sidewalks at railroad crossings would be the best outcome for the city. Dist. 4 Councilor Fran Palochak said that the city and NMDOT can coordinate to clear any obstacles with the project, for the sake of people’s safety.

“We can’t eliminate the railroad crossings, but we can work on the pedestrian crossings quickly,” she said. “We need to save lives.”