In an effort to bring relief to San Mateo residents affected by train horns, officials are scoping ways to establish quiet zones along the 4.5-mile stretch of railroad track running through the city.

Identified as a council priority earlier this year, the effort to reduce the noise impact of train horns on San Mateo residents from the Caltrain and Union Pacific freight trains operating on the Peninsula’s rail corridor has been in the works for several years, explained city engineer Jeffrey Tom.

He said the horns are used as a safety precaution to warn drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists when a train is arriving at or departing from a station as well as operating near a construction zone, near at-grade street crossings and when a conductor sees a trespasser on the tracks. Because San Mateo has nine at-grade crossings, which means the street is level with the railroad tracks, and several at-grade and underpass street crossings clustered around downtown, there are stretches where the horns are being sounded almost continually down a stretch of track as a train passes through the city, said Tom.

In response to a 2009 request from city officials that rail operators reduce train horn volumes in San Mateo, Caltrain relocated horns to the underside of its train to reduce the range of the sound, but the Union Pacific Railroad couldn’t make the same change because the company’s trains operate in other regions, he said.

And though a 2013 assessment by a city consultant found the noise was within the Federal Railroad Administration’s requirements, officials have set their sights on meeting the agency’s requirements for establishing a “quiet zone” to restrict the sounding of train horns at at-grade street crossings.

Though Deputy Mayor Diane Papan acknowledged Caltrain’s efforts to mitigate the noise for residents living near the city’s stretch of tracks, she noted Caltrain horns are still audible even in the day with ambient noise. But she urged officials to take whatever steps they can to mitigate the noise from freight trains operating at night.

“I’m not so concerned about Caltrain in the middle of the day,” she said, according to a video of the meeting. “But it will still be very quiet in the middle of the night, and those trains and their horns will still be really loud.”

To mitigate the uptick in risk associated with not sounding the train horns at crossings, the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, requires cities requesting quiet zones to implement safety improvements at the crossings, said Tom. Among the measures Tom said could be taken to reduce the risk of crossings are four-quadrant gate systems, which block both directions of traffic on both sides of the track, installing medians to prevent drivers from crossing the tracks when the gates are down, converting two-way streets into one-way streets and separating the tracks from the street level by building an underpass, or a grade separation project.

But those measures will be costly, Tom explained, with the least expensive option — to install four-quadrant gates at Second, East Fourth and East Bellevue avenues — to cost at least $9 million.

Tom looked to an ongoing grade separation project to raise the tracks and lower the road at East 25th Avenue and complete east-west connections at 28th and 31st avenues to reduce train noise for residents in the southern portion of the city. Councilman Joe Goethals pegged grade separation projects for downtown crossings as a long-term strategy for making the corridor less disruptive for residents at night.

“I think that in February at our next goal setting session, it’s going to be important for us to state that now is the time to start talking about grade separations in our downtown,” he said. “I know that we’re not going to do this fast enough … for most of us.”

Noting the lengthy timeline for designing and funding grade separation projects, Papan advocated for focusing on safety improvement projects for a few of the crossings so officials could move forward with seeking approval for quiet zones while funding is assembled for grade separation projects. She added that once the crossing improvements are scoped, officials can begin exploring the possibility of federal grants and private funds to support them.

Mayor Rick Bonilla also suggested officials consider extending Third and East Fourth avenues as one-way streets from Highway 101 to B Street, as a strategy for improving safety at the crossings where those streets intersect with the railroad tracks. Currently, the two streets are one-way streets between Highway 101 and South Delaware Street.

Councilwoman Maureen Freschet voiced support for considering the extension of Third and East Fourth avenues as one-way streets, as well as a strategy to take small steps toward safety improvements to see if quiet zones can be established sooner rather than later.

“I know our preference down the road is a grade separation but I agree it’s going to be a long time before we get the funding for that,” she said. “So in the interim if we had to spend $9 million or maybe we could even get it for less than that, that to me is a worthwhile investment to the community.”

In other business, the council approved a proposal to build a 182-room Hampton Inn & Suites in the lot behind the Marina Plaza Center. The new hotel is slated to replace the 116-room Los Prados Hotel on the 2.28-acre lot near the Highway 101/Hillsdale Boulevard interchange.

Councilmembers also approved changes to the city code aimed at establishing specific hours when garbage cans will be allowed on downtown streets in response to concerns from merchants and downtown visitors who noticed trash containers were left on sidewalks for long periods of time. Though they reviewed a proposed ordinance to restrict the number of hours trash cans can be left on residential streets, officials opted to revisit the issue at a later meeting after staff conducted additional outreach to neighborhood associations.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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