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It will cost Columbia millions to get trains to stop blowing their horns

Trains in Columbia making too much noise?

For decades, Columbians have fallen asleep, abruptly awoken, halted mid-conversation and plugged their ears to the sound of CSX and Norfolk Southern train horns at all hours of the day and night. The city is assembling an 11-person committee to co
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For decades, Columbians have fallen asleep, abruptly awoken, halted mid-conversation and plugged their ears to the sound of CSX and Norfolk Southern train horns at all hours of the day and night. The city is assembling an 11-person committee to co

Columbia could silence nearly two-thirds of the noise caused by train horns in the city by spending just more than $2 million.

A corridor stretching from the University of South Carolina’s Greek Village, through Five Points and up to Beltline Boulevard could eliminate that noise by becoming the city’s first train “quiet zone” if city leaders decide the cost is worth it and can come up with the money.

It’s one of 11 citywide quiet zones recently proposed to City Council. These zones, identified by a committee that has been studying safety, feasibility and costs for nearly a year, could keep CSX and Norfolk Southern trains from blowing their horns when crossing public roadways.

“It really can’t be overstated how bad the noise is in some parts of town,” said Brenda Kramar, a Wales Garden resident who chairs the city’s quiet zone advisory committee.

Kramar told City Council members on Tuesday that she has counted more than 100 train horns in less than eight hours heard from inside her house.

Between the CSX and Norfolk Southern lines, some 20 to 30 trains come through downtown Columbia any given day, The State has previously reported.

While trains are required to sound their horns in certain patterns when approaching street crossings, the Federal Railroad Administration allows local governments to establish quiet zones to keep the horns from blowing if safety requirements are met.

Even in a quiet zone, train operators may still sound their horns in cases of emergency, if a person or object is on the tracks, or at their discretion.

Kramar said quiet zones have not been shown to have a negative effect on safety.

There are more than 800 quiet zones in towns and cities across the country, including five in South Carolina, according to the quiet zone committee: One in Spartanburg, two in Rock Hill and two in North Charleston.

To silence train horns, Columbia would have to upgrade many, but not all, of its street-level railroad crossings. Some would need new gates and lights, some would need new technology to regulate the timing of gates, and some might require additional safety features.

It could cost the city between $13 million and $14 million to complete all the necessary upgrades necessary for all 11 areas to become quiet zones. The private railroad companies almost certainly will not contribute to the cost, committee members told City Council, and state and federal grants would be extremely limited.

Rather than try to do all the projects at once, the quiet zone committee recommends the city start with the zone that will have the most bang for the city’s buck: the Gadsden Street to Beltline Boulevard corridor running through the university, Five Points and north Harden Street areas. The committee estimates that more than 60 percent of the city’s train noises come from from the 14 crossings in that corridor. For roughly $2 million, the city can upgrade all the crossings in that corridor to meet quiet zone requirements.

Ten other corridors have been identified by the committee as potential quiet zones: Heyward-Whaley streets, Catawba-Flora streets, Cushman Drive-North Hinton Street, Tryon-Devine streets, Assembly-Gadsden streets, Williams Street-Candi Lane, Rosewood Drive-Shop Road (near the Andrews train yard), Sunset Drive-Fontaine Road, Atlas Road-South Beltline Boulevard and another along Atlas Road.

City leaders haven’t made any commitments to pay for or move forward with the quiet zone projects, though the advisory committee has recommended City Council consider finding $2 million in next year’s budget for the first quiet zone.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said Tuesday that it’s time to “put our nose to the grindstone” on the train noise issue.

One city councilman made a lighthearted fundraising appeal to one of the trains’ biggest critics: Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer, Wheeler Hill resident and Democratic candidate for state Senate. Harpootlian once told The State that the near-constant din of trains near his home is “like living in some two-bit, rural, redneck town where the trains wake everybody up all night long” and that if city leaders didn’t do something about the trains, he might work to vote them out.

Councilman Howard Duvall had a request for Harpootlian, who sat in the audience at the council’s last meeting.

“The state of South Carolina shorts the city of Columbia $1.2 million a year (by) underfunding us from the local government fund,” Duvall said. “Can we get a commitment from the senator from Richland County to fund us at $1.2 million? And we could save that for two years, and he can sleep all night.”

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