Opponents mobilize to put the brakes on Quiet Zone

Public debate continues; construction set to begin
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald correspondent
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With just a month to go before construction begins at Rocklin’s rail crossings impacted by the approved Quiet Zone, opponents are planning a protest.

In May, a city contractor is expected to start on a $50,000 project to add center medians at five rail crossings at Farron Street, Rocklin Road, Midas Avenue, Americana Way and Dominguez Road. In order for the city to stop train conductors from arbitrarily sounding engine horns when approaching downtown crossings, the Federal Railroad Administration requires the upgrade, meant to prevent drivers from ducking under the lowering arms to turn around as a train approaches.

“There is no acceptable substitute for the routine sounding of the train horn for crossings,” said opponent Ken Rogers. “Reliance on the engineer having the right to sound the horn in a Quiet Zone if he sees fit to do so is a false hope.”

Rogers, a retired rail worker, continues to speak out at nearly every City Council meeting since the plan was approved in November, hoping the council will overturn its decision. Now he’s joined by concerned Rocklin resident Dave Houston, who not only spoke at his second council meeting March 26, but is now teaming up with Rogers to figure out how to get the city to reverse course.

“I see them moving forward and I am very adamant that this is very bad,” Houston said.

A former railroad worker himself, Houston said drivers and pedestrians need every second of warning.

“I’ve seen people get killed at crossings,” he said. “You never forget it. I felt I had to say something to protect (people). I hope the (council) gives it the proper thoughts and then makes the proper decision.”

Rocklin Mayor Diana Ruslin said the council has already done that.

“Council has taken action on this,” Ruslin said. “I respect them coming and they are passionate about it. They have a right to speak to the council and we will listen, but at this point, the action stands.”

Houston points to the March 27 fatal rail accident in Pomona that took the life of an elderly man in a Quiet Zone crossing. That accident is still under investigation. The video on local TV showed his walker next to the sign warning "no train horn."
"The day after, and the mayor says nothing will change?” Houston said. “For good measure, the day after, this poor guy gets killed in a Quiet Zone in LA. The fight continues.”

Houston wants to organize a protest to get the message out to the public that the council needs to hear from them.

Rogers has already presented the council with 38 signatures from Rocklin residents opposing the Quiet Zone and hundreds more signatures from alleged former rail workers, like them, who have road Rocklin's rails and oppose Quiet Zones. Now Rogers and Houston are considering walking neighborhoods to get more signatures on the petition.

Are Rogers and Houston a vocal minority or majority? Longtime Councilmember George Magnuson said the Quiet Zone has been talked about for 15 years. Yankee Hill Homeowners Association President Franklin Burris, who lives near the Americana Way rail crossing, said he's been working on getting it implemented for at least two years and even tried to get it included in the city's general plan update.

"Yes, I am the father (of the Quiet Zone)," Burris said. "Sacramento did it. I saw it done in Elk Grove and Roseville. I thought, ‘Why don't we have it?’ I'm still waiting to hear a good reason why you wouldn't want to do it."

Burris, a Connect Realty salesperson, said a Quiet Zone will improve his property values and make it easier to sell a house in his neighborhood.

Burris said it was not his relationship with developers and the city that got the Quiet Zone pushed through.

"I wish that were true, but it isn't," Burris said. "Frankly, I haven't been happy with the process that the city has gone through. I certainly think this could have been smoother for them had they reached out to people who supported when they were going forward."

Burris said as a consultant for Donahue Schriber, he helped get the entitlements through the city's planning department, which allowed the new Walmart and Target developments on Sierra College Boulevard to move forward. Burris formerly served on the Rocklin Redevelopment Citizens Advisory Committee, id past chairman of the Rocklin Area Chamber of Commerce and has worked on political campaigns in Sacramento and Placer County.

"The way I am serving my community is valuable,” Burris said. “I don't think I have to be on council to do that.”

Mayor Ruslin denies collusion in the Quiet Zone approval.

"Yes, he's very involved in the community, but I think we all are," Ruslin said. "He was representing the homeowners association. He's just like everybody else."

Burris and the Yankee Hill Homeowners Association are not listed in city documents regarding the Quiet Zone, according to Rocklin Public Affairs Manager Karen Garner.

"It could have started as informal conversations with a councilmember or staff," Garner said.

Garner said the city has received numerous undocumented calls of horn complaints over the years.

"Train horn noise has been an issue for years, and there's really not a particular request that prompted pursuing Quiet Zones," Garner said.

City records show an email from Argonaut Avenue Resident Suzie Stark to the mayor last June on the "annoying whistle blowing" that kept her up at night for the last seven years may have spurred the latest effort to get it accomplished.

"I'm delighted (about the Quiet Zone). It's all for the public good," Stark said. "The (city) needs to try it this way."

Under Quiet Zone rules, train operators have the discretion to sound the horn if there's potential trouble ahead.

The Placer Herald has received several calls showing support for the Quiet Zone and just as many comments at expressing opposition, including Rocklin resident Dawn Devany, who lives next to the tracks.

"The horns are for everybody's safety,” Devany wrote. “Not having them just because of a few peoples’ discomfort is irresponsible on the city's part.”

Rocklin resident Ed Hargrove said residents near the tracks should have known what they got into.

"It's just like someone moving next to an airport and complaining about the noise," he said.

Longtime resident Ken Koester, who lives off Farron Street near the tracks, supports the Quiet Zone.

"With all the safety devices and good visibility we have now, there is no need to blast that horn all through town in the middle of the night," Koester said.

He wants to get relief from the estimated 26 trains per day that pass through Rocklin, signaling every time they enter a crossing. Koester thinks it’s all about responsibility and drivers and pedestrians need to take responsibility for themselves.

"I guess people have to learn respect for what trains are: big and unstoppable in short distances," Koster said. "Use proper caution at a crossing. If we consider the millions of train miles and countless millions of tons of cargo that have passed through all the foothill crossings over the past 50 years, the number of accidents is a tiny fraction of what happens on our streets every day."

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the city has had three accidents at Rocklin crossings since the data was collected for crossing accidents in 1940. City officials say the new eight-inch high medians will only add to the safety of the crossings.

Trained volunteers from an organization called Operation Lifesaver will make rail safety presentation to Rocklin Unified School District children starting next month.

Rogers said he may need to take his message to the council one step further.

"A recall drive," Rogers said.

Rogers admits trying to throw one or all of the City Council members out of office may be costly without help.

"My support of their candidacy would be tied to their opposing without qualification the Rocklin Quiet Zone and their willingness to make a motion to have the council vote to repeal the Quiet Zone," he said.

Houston thinks a better approach is a ballot initiative to let voters decide the issue once and for all.