May 23, 2018
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Freeport council votes to mute train whistles at downtown rail crossings

By Ben McCanna, The Forecaster

FREEPORT, Maine — A Freeport Town Council discussion on train noise last week was briefly interrupted by train noise.

Then, shortly after the clang and whistle of the 9:40 p.m. train subsided Tuesday night, the council voted 6-1 to implement railroad quiet zones in town.

In 30 days or less, trains will no longer blow their horns while approaching eight downtown railroad crossings.

The vote ends several years of discussions and debate on the merits of silence versus safety, and comes on the heels of updated Maine Department of Transportation data the town received in late June: Recent traffic counts at each railroad crossing show that Freeport’s railroad crossings fall beneath federally mandated thresholds that would require trains to signal their approach.

Those ratings could change, however, if the number of passing trains increases or if daily vehicle traffic increases at the crossings, Town Manager Peter Joseph said.

Nonetheless, if that were to happen, the town could decrease its ratings at the crossings and maintain the quiet zones by installing supplemental safety measures, such as gates, traffic signs or changes to the roadway, Joseph added.

At the meeting at the Freeport Community Center on Depot Street, the council had two choices: Initiate the quiet zones immediately and consider additional safety measures later, or do both.

The council preferred the wait-and-see approach by a wide margin, a decision that was supported by nine residents who spoke during a public comment period.

Jesse Colfer of Royal Avenue said the six daily trains have affected his quality of life.

“Personally, the 6:30 a.m. train is my enemy,” he said. “The safety issues are important, but we’re worrying about the hypothetical and ignoring the constituencies.”

West Street resident Shannon Garrity said the trains have a profound effect on her.

“It physically hurts when that train comes down and the whistle blows directly into my house,” she said. “My ears ring. It’s insane and I shouldn’t have to live that way. Nobody should have to live that way.”

Cottage Street resident Candace Myers said the current safety signals at Freeport crossings are sufficient.

“We have traffic lights at every crossing and we’re still worried it’s not enough? It’s kind of odd,” she said.

The lone voice of dissent on the council came from Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan, who countered that initiating railroad quiet zones doubles the risk of accidents. She said she would rather see the federal government pay for some of the supplemental safety measures and have them in place before the train whistles cease.

“From my perspective, the safety issue is the most important thing for us to weigh,” she said. “We have these two very bad choices in front of us: bad quality of life or decrease in safety.”

In the end, the council voted to immediately initiate quiet zones, but also to set up a subcommittee to explore options for additional safety measures.

Joseph said he would submit paperwork to the Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday. Within 30 days of receiving the forms, the trains would stop blowing their whistles.

“I’m fairly certain we’ll know it when it happens,” he said.

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