Commuter rail crossing at Needham Golf Club/ Credit: Needham Observer

The good news for hundreds of residents who support the elimination of train horns along the town’s MBTA commuter rail line is that the Quiet Zone project to end the mandatory use of the horns is moving forward. 

The not-so-good news is that the project’s inherent complexity continues to present a challenge. The most recent effort to create the zone launched at roughly the speed of a Red Line train, and it’s uncertain whether a fully baked plan will be ready in time to be considered at May Town Meeting as planned. 

The goal of the project is to improve safety standards to the point where the dozens of daily train horns that begin blowing in the predawn hours and extend past midnight would no longer be mandatory.

A $100,000 consulting contract was funded after a Quiet Zone article was pulled from the Town Meeting warrant last May over concerns it lacked current information. That contract was intended to help bring an up-to-date proposal to Town Meeting this year, complete with a price estimate for installing new safety systems at the town’s six train crossings. 

The town formed the Quiet Zone Working Group (QZWG), which in July rapidly executed a request for proposals (RFP) to hire a consulting firm to support the process. But no firms responded to either an initial or subsequent request. Instead of getting a late summer start, the project did not get off the ground until November when the town engaged one of its preapproved consulting firms, Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI), to undertake the project. 

At the working group’s Jan. 22 meeting, GPI’s John Diaz provided an update of the work the firm has done thus far to assess the scope and cost of establishing a Quiet Zone in Needham. Prior rough cost estimates have been as high as $7 million.

Diaz said GPI has generated updated maps and drawings with drone imaging that, along with traffic studies and other research, will help assess the safety requirements at each of the five public crossings —West Street, Rosemary Street, May Street, Great Plain Avenue and Oak Street — as well as the private crossing at the Needham Golf Club.

Diaz provided an overview of each crossing, and the QZWG discussed possible solutions for each, along with preliminary cost information. The level of complexity varied from crossing to crossing, as did the potential cost. In some cases the solution likely requires installing four-quadrant gates that come with six-figure price tags. In others, the answer relied more on considerably less expensive low-tech elements such as the installation of flexible medians using the tall pylons one sees at construction zones. 

Discussion also addressed associated maintenance costs, how the use of medians might affect DPW operations such as snow plowing, impacts on private properties near each crossing and impacts on traffic operations.

Diaz indicated the crossings at West, Rosemary and May streets and Great Plain Avenue were the less complex, with the crossing at Oak Street being the most challenging of the five public way locations.

The golf course problem

Each of the five public crossings needs to be addressed individually and satisfy safety requirements to be a Quiet Zone. The sixth town crossing, located on what is considered private property at the Needham Golf Club, also must meet safety guidelines, but it presents a different challenge.

“You can’t start the Quiet Zone with a private crossing,” Diaz said. “If it’s within a quarter-mile of a public crossing, it can be considered, but you don’t have a private crossing nearby. The closest one is Oak Street.”

The golf course crossing has minimal infrastructure, is not connected to a public way and generally presents challenges that differ greatly from the other five crossings. In addition to being the answer to “one of these things is not like the others,” it is estimated to be the most expensive crossing to resolve.

“I would add to what was said that the golf course is a place that’s got a lot of kids,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, the town manager and a member of the QZWG. “So it’s not just people in cars, it’s kids.”

Further discussion led to considering the option of separating the golf course from the other five crossings and seeking to create a Quiet Zone that would extend from Needham Junction to the commuter line terminus at Needham Heights. 

“You could easily move forward with a Quiet Zone from Oak Street on through,” said Diaz. “You could separate (the golf course) out and have some kind of negotiation with the MBTA while looking at what the real cost might be.

“I’m sure you can always amend a Quiet Zone, whether it’s an amendment or an agreement with MBTA, to not blow the whistle there.”

After further discussion, Fitzpatrick said, “It does feel like we should accelerate the cost estimate for design, construction of the other five if we want to go to Town Meeting — and we do want to go to Town Meeting. I don’t see us getting to the golf course first.”

Diaz was asked to schedule a meeting at the golf course for town staff to meet with the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis, before the QZWG’s next meeting Feb. 12. That conversation has reportedly been scheduled for Feb. 2 and will help guide the committee’s next steps.

Safer Quieter Needham remains optimistic

Despite hurdles, the leaders of the Safer Quieter Needham (SQN) citizens group are encouraged by the progress. Lars Unhjem, who formed SQN and has immersed himself in the intricacies of quiet zones, is an appointee to the QZWG. He holds out hope that enough work can be completed to bring a viable project before Town Meeting in May.

“My takeaway is it’s moving forward in a really positive way,” said Kate Weinograd, another member of SQN’s leadership. “There’s a lot of good energy from all the different members of the working group.

“We’ve always known that golf course crossing is different,” she said. “It’s unique and likely would have to be dealt with outside the standard framework of the Quiet Zone.”

“We have more than a thousand people supporting this. Everybody is working toward the ultimate goal of moving this in May.”

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