Grade crossing at Needham Golf Club/ Credit: Needham Observer

After an involuntary three-month quiet period of its own, the Quiet Zone Working Group (QZWG) is getting back on track in its effort to bring a plan addressing the town’s train noise issues to Town Meeting in the spring.

Quiet Zone funding was planned to be discussed at last spring’s Town Meeting, but town officials pulled the article at the last minute, citing cost uncertainties. The QZWG was then created to lead the Quiet Zone Refresh Project, a $100,000 effort to assess the feasibility of creating a federally designated Quiet Zone along the town’s commuter rail corridor and estimate its cost.

The upgrading of crossings to achieve Quiet Zone standards can require a range of safety improvements. This can involve equipment, such as flashing light signals or four-quadrant gates, or altering traffic patterns via channelization or medians, creating one-way streets or crossing closures.

At the group’s first meeting in July, members agreed to hire a consulting firm to study what the town would need to do to upgrade safety conditions at the town’s six commuter rail grade crossings. These upgrades could eliminate the need for train horns at the crossings, addressing concerns about deafening train horn blasts currently mandated under safety regulations. However, two separate requests for proposals (RFPs) advertised over the summer to find a consulting firm failed to draw a single bid, stalling QZWG efforts.

“Civil engineering firms that might qualify are in short supply,” said QZWG member Carys Lustig, director of public works. 

Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick noted that a glut of public construction projects has limited the ability of firms to take on new work.

“With all the federal money — the ARPA money and the infrastructure money — there’s more money being spent on construction than there has been in a long time, mostly by the public,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

At its meeting on Oct. 13, the working group, having made the required good faith effort to follow the standard RFP process, chose to skip a third RFP process and instead engage directly with one of the town’s pre-approved transportation consulting firms, Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI), to undertake the project. 

Work could begin in November

Fitzpatrick said GPI will require about two weeks to prepare its proposal and pricing, which the town is expected to approve in time to begin its work in November.

That work involves assessing the conditions at each of the town’s crossings, which could be finished before the end of this year. Current safety levels would then be measured against the standards required for the town to implement a Quiet Zone.

Those standards are set by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which has the authority to allow localities that meet safety requirements to designate a segment of a rail line with one or more consecutive public highway-rail grade crossings as a Quiet Zone.

While the effort has gained strong support from both residents and town officials, it is often qualified with some version of “depending on the price.” Some estimates place the cost of compliance with the safety regulations in the $7 million range. 

Costs aside, GPI representatives who attended last Friday’s QZWG meeting offered an optimistic scenario of how the approval process could play out, at least in terms of navigating the FRA process and overcoming possible objections from the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis Commuter Services.

The Finance Committee and others had expressed concerns about the MBTA’s potential role in the process. But John Diaz, a GPI consultant and Needham resident, explained that it is the FRA, not the MBTA, that approves the Quiet Zone designation.

“{The MBTA} can’t deny you a Quiet Zone,” said Diaz.“They can have discussions, but once you’ve met the safety requirements, they can’t come back and say, ‘No, we want more.’ You’ve documented that you’ve met those requirements.”

Proponents are encouraged

The citizens advocacy group Safer Quieter Needham has been the leading proponent for the Quiet Zone initiative, having marshaled the support of hundreds of residents. It is represented on the QZWG by its chair, Lars Unhjem.

Unhjem and others on the committee noted a key factor going forward is assessing how to handle the crossing located on land leased by the town to the Needham Golf Club near Hersey station.

Because there is less infrastructure at the golf course crossing, it is expected to be the most expensive to upgrade.

“That (crossing) is not at a public road,” Unhjem explained. “That’s an important distinction in FRA regulations. It’s considered a private crossing.” 

Unhjem explained that the golf course crossing technically cannot be included in a formal Quiet Zone. But he said it can and should be discussed in tandem with the other five crossings. He indicated an agreement could be negotiated so that the golf course area would effectively function as a Quiet Zone.

Unhjem said he is encouraged by the latest developments. ““It looks like the committee is going to meet its goal of being able to go to Town Meeting with a solid understanding of what it’s going to cost to do the upfront design and engineering. And maybe to have a solid understanding of the whole project.

“Stuff is happening,” he added. “There’s a working group. The working group is working.”

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