March 11, 2008

Representin’ (A COLUMN ABOUT THE METRO COUNCIL): When I hear that whistle blowin’ …

The train whistle wrangle has councilwoman pinnedPavement and train horns, folks — it’s what gets you elected.Above your stance on any issue, be it abortion or arenas, you’ll win re-election by making sure the roads are paved, a figurative expression about taking care of those you represent. The other option is to face a swarm the first time something goes weird, especially if your constituency is well-educated, well-off and well-informed. Metro Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh got it last week during a neighborhood meeting about the dissolution of “quiet zones” along Frankfort Avenue — part of a handshake agreement with CSX reached some 20 years ago that passing trains wouldn’t blow their horns at street crossings along the densely populated residential and commercial corridor. The meeting ran three-and-a-half hours. Some 150 people came out.Resident frustration with the popular 9th-district Democrat is growing because it appears she and Metro government dragged their feet on a federally mandated change requiring quiet zones to be equipped with new, expensive safety equipment in exchange for the relative tranquility. But that perception is not accurate. Congress began debating train-crossing safety in the mid-’90s, and the Federal Railroad Administration finally issued an updated rule on June 24, 2005, requiring trains to sound horns at street crossings that aren’t fully blocked by gates. It gave cities until Feb. 24 of this year to submit plans for new quiet zones. Metro blew the deadline.But crisis, as it were, has been averted: The horns aren’t blowing in Clifton and Crescent Hill now. They won’t be for at least a few more months, maybe more. For that you can thank your local officials, including Mayor Jerry Abramson, Metro Public Works and Ward-Pugh, who pleaded with the FRA for a pass the weekend before the horns were scheduled to begin blowing for the first time in two decades.But why such haste when Metro had a year and a half to plan? According to e-mails and memos obtained in an open records request by attorney and Clifton resident Leslie Barras, Metro applied to keep the quiet zone in early June 2005. The city’s plans included maintaining the quiet at Jane and Fenley streets, but not where the tracks cross Frankfort Avenue. The mayor’s office and public works department ultimately decided it was too expensive to keep the Frankfort crossing quiet, partly because it would require closing New Main and Weickel streets, they said, to comply with federal standards and install quad gates, which block all four lanes. According to an e-mail exchange, by September, everybody — including Ward-Pugh — had agreed instead to install a directional horn there, which would be quieter than train whistles and cheaper than the status quo. Tammy Markert, road operations manager for public works, asked the FRA in an e-mail whether the Feb. 24 deadline could be ignored if Metro had agreed to buy a directional horn but couldn’t install it before then. But Metro didn’t have the waiver necessary to blow the deadline, although some were proceeding as if they did. When she learned this the Thursday before the deadline, Ward-Pugh was pissed. “THIS CAN’T BE,” she wrote in an e-mail to the FRA and city officials. Mayor Abramson requested a stay, which was granted. Now, Ward-Pugh said she plans to commission a CSX study about alternatives to a directional horn. That’ll cost around $25,000, most of which, she said, would come from her neighborhood development fund. Importantly, the public was left out every step of the way.“It’s just unfortunate that so much time had to pass before this process really started up,” Barras said in a phone interview. She and Ward-Pugh had a heated exchange during last Thursday’s meeting. Ward-Pugh said she regrets not holding public meetings last September, when all this was transpiring. “Even though I supported that decision (for a directional horn), there’s no question that last September I should have, and I would suggest that the administration should have equally, had public meetings to bring in the public and let them know what was happening,” she said, adding that her office would be holding regular public meetings on the Frankfort quiet zone until the matter is resolved. For more on this story, visit LEO’s news blog at leocitystrobe.blogspot.com. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com