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Time is now money for F-M quiet zone: Rules change means cities face reapplication for federal rail project

In the next few weeks, Fargo-Moorhead officials will have to decide what's more important to the cities' joint railroad quiet zone: six months' delay or $720,000.

In the next few weeks, Fargo-Moorhead officials will have to decide what's more important to the cities' joint railroad quiet zone: six months' delay or $720,000.

Though Fargo-Moorhead received federal approval of a pilot quiet zone project in September, the rules for setting up a zone have been changed, forcing the cities to reapply.

The quiet zone would stop the routine blowing of train whistles at intersections throughout the city. To keep intersections safe, the cities must instead set up extra safety measures -- four-armed gates or medians, which prevent cars from skirting around the crossing guard arms.

If officials wait until December to send in their application, they can leave out some pieces planned for the project and save between $500,000 and $1 million on the $7 million project.

"Any kind of savings is going to be a big help," said Rob Lynch, a Fargo city commissioner and a Rail Issues Task Force member.

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But if they delay the reapplication, the entire process will be pushed back an estimated three to six months.

That means the train whistles likely won't be turned off until 2006, said Bob Bright, executive director for the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments.

So far, that delay doesn't seem to dishearten city officials, who have been working on the project since 1995.

"After you've gone through an eight or nine year process, that's a small amount of time," said Rick Lane, Fargo senior transportation engineer.

For Moorhead, however, those months may be crucial. Right now, city officials are considering three proposals calling for $14.5 million to $18 million worth of retail and housing construction in 3.4 acres of downtown land -- all nestled right next to the railroad tracks.

But because no downtown construction likely will be completed until 2005 -- just a few months before the whistles would be turned off -- the quiet zone delay shouldn't hurt developers' chances of filling their stores and condos, said John Rowell, a Moorhead councilman and chairman of the Rail Issues Task Force.

The Fargo City Commission and the Moorhead City Council will be asked to weigh in on the issue in the next few weeks, Bright said.

The delayed application makes a cost difference because Fargo-Moorhead's zone previously was approved as a pilot project -- one that would be used to test the effectiveness of quiet zones as a whole.

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Because it was a pilot, the project included extra measures like three months of video monitoring at crossings to determine their safety and vehicle detection systems, which would stop the four-armed gates from trapping cars on the tracks.

The video monitoring would have cost about $160,000, Bright said, and the detection systems would have cost $40,000 per intersection -- $240,000 for Fargo and $320,000 for Moorhead, said Lane and Bob Zimmerman, Moorhead city engineer.

In December, the Federal Railroad Administration will adopt its final rules for how cities should set up quiet zones. If the two cities reapply under those new rules, they will save the extra money that would have been spent on the pilot project.

That won't mean returning to square one, said Tammy Wagner, regional crossing manager for the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We've followed this along for years, and it should expedite the process," she said.

And it doesn't mean the last nine years have been a waste of time, Rowell said. In fact, the railroad administration's rules frequently cite Fargo-Moorhead's experience, he said.

"Our community has led the way for the rest of the nation to show how you put in place a quiet zone," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Joy Anderson at (701) 241-5556

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