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With the prospect of train traffic tripling in the Quad-Cities, the words “quiet zones” are on the lips of a lot of people lately. Government officials here say there’s not much they can do to stop the proposed $31 billion merger of the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads, so some cities are trying to sign deals to get money to limit the impact. In many cases, it appears that money will be spent on what are called quiet zones. Officials in Bettendorf, Davenport and Muscatine — all of whom have approved agreements with Canadian Pacific for millions of dollars — are contemplating quiet zones. But there has been little explanation publicly about what they are. Put simply: They are stretches of rail line, at least a half mile long and encompassing one or more consecutive public highway-rail grade crossings, where trains are not supposed to routinely sound their horns when approaching crossings — the way they’re required to do currently. However, while the basic explanation is simple, the process for establishing them, how they work and the potential costs are not simple. A quiet zone doesn’t mean that train operators can’t sound their horns in these areas at all. They’re still permitted to do so in emergencies or when other railroad or government rules apply, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). In fact, the FRA says a better name for these quiet zones is “reduced train horn area.” Quiet zones also don’t apply to rail yards. They also don’t eliminate the use of locomotive bells. Still, these zones are supposed to make life easier for residents and businesses near railroad crossings where trains must sound their horns 15-20 seconds before entering a public highway-rail grade crossing. The horn must be sounded at 96 decibels — a level that can be jarring to those in proximity. But, then, that’s the point. Horns have, historically, been used as a “universal safety precaution,” as the FRA puts it. “The train horn is the last preventative measure in eliminating an accident at a railroad crossing,” says Kris Klop, manager of highway-rail grade crossing programs for the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT). “Lights and gates and signage and all that can be there, but that train horn is so loud it gets the attention of the motorist,” Mr. Klop said. The state DOT has no jurisdiction in these matters, but it is notified of applications and attends on-site review of potential quiet zones, he added. There are 15 quiet zones in Iowa and 82 in Illinois, according to federal data. Because the absence of horns raises the risk of a collision, public entities must take steps to mitigate that additional risk, the FRA says. At a minimum, that means warning devices but it also can mean installing more expensive gates, medians or channelization devices, among other improvements. These can be expensive and the approval process lengthy, officials say. Some cities hire consultants to guide them. The length of time for approval varies. Mr. Klop says the process can take a couple years, but he’s seen it take as long as 10 years. Often, though, the length of time to establish such zones is determined by the availability of funds to pay for the safety improvements. The FRA says that quiet zones can cost anywhere from $30,000 to more than $1 million. Local governments, especially smaller ones, often can’t come up with the money. Congress passed a law that required train horn regulations (and authorized quiet zones) in 1994, but the legislation did not supply a funding source, the FRA said. In Bettendorf, much of the $3 million it will receive from Canadian Pacific will go to quiet zones, and Mayor Bob Gallagher says he’s confident it will make a difference. The zone would be established as rail traffic ramps up, he said. In an email to the QCBJ, Canadian Pacific said traffic increases would be gradual over “a three-year, post-approval integration period.” A 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, said it was not aware of any study quantifying the benefits of quiet zones. But it said “most stakeholders GAO interviewed said these quiet zones provide benefits to communities, such as reducing noise or increasing economic development.” In a recent email, the FRA said it has compared the safety of quiet zones with public highway-rail crossings equipped with active warning devices where locomotive horns are routinely sounded and that “these internal statistical analyses have repeatedly indicated that quiet zones are just as safe as public crossings.” In Burlington, Iowa, where a quiet zone has stretched through the downtown and other parts of the city for years, the impact is noticeable, said City Manager Chad Bird. “I don’t recall the last time I heard a horn in downtown Burlington,” he added. Davenport Alderman Marion Meginnis, 3rd Ward, said that she’s also confident quiet zones will make a difference. “I’ve seen it in action,” she said, describing how she’d attended a conference in Burlington but wasn’t bothered by train noise. Ms. Meginnis said there is a lot of interest on the city council in quiet zones. “The discussion is how do you fund it, how do you do it equitably,” she said. Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are downtown near Canadian Pacific railroad tracks. Noise isn’t the only concern in the Quad-Cities. Officials also worry about providing emergency services, the potential for accidents and access to the riverfront. Kyle Carter, executive director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, an affiliate of the Quad Cities Chamber, said he believes quiet zones — implemented correctly — will help. But with investments in the city’s riverfront, more must be done to prepare for the increased train traffic, he said. “We need to get up and over the railroad tracks,” he added. So far, Davenport city officials have mentioned quiet zones but haven’t detailed how it might spend the $10 million it will get, other than devoting $2 million to improvements around the water pollution control plant. Mr. Carter, though, says there is discussion at City Hall about the possibility of building an overpass.