Quiet Zone delay irks Old Town residents
Ten years is a long time to have your daily routine disrupted by loud train horns throughout the day and night. Eight hours of sleep is difficult, windows are shut even during hot days, closed captioning is always on the TV. And now, when you're working from home because of the pandemic, phone calls and video conference meetings are routinely interrupted.
"The horns sound at midnight, at 3 a.m., it's constant and it never ends," said nearby resident Kat Ulrich.
It's even worse when you believe the horn blasts were supposed to end years ago. But that is what the residents who live and work near the Union Pacific Railroad crossing at the west end of the Steel Bridge have been putting up with. More than a dozen residents showed up on short notice last week to tell the Portland Tribune they were promised the constant disruptions would end 10 years ago.
In May 2010, the Oregon Department of Transportation directed the railroad company and the Portland Bureau of Transportation to make the changes necessary to create a quiet zone where the train tracks cross Southwest Naito Parkway into the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood on their way to Union Station. The administrative order said "the alterations shall be completed within 12 months."
The delay is in sharp contrast to a related project at Flanders and Interstate 405. There, PBOT is preparing to install a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the freeway as part of the Flanders Street Greenway Project to create a safe passage for walkers and bikers from upper Northwest Portland to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The new Naito pedestrian crossing will be the final connection between Flanders and the park.
"The issue now, is equally or perhaps more about the rule of law," said neighborhood resident Lawrence Freeman. "How it is that local government in general, PBOT in particular, and (Union Pacific Railroad) have been able, for more than 10 years, to aggressively and with impunity thumb their noses at an order of an administrative court and at the citizens who are asking that the order be followed?"
But the transportation bureau insists ODOT has only required the work to start when all the funds are available to complete the project. That includes money and a commitment from Union Pacific to upgrade the equipment they own and operate at the site, including the flashing lights and crossing gates. And the railroad company has still not made such an agreement.
"It's not an unfunded mandate," said PBOT Project Managers Dan Layden.
State transportation officials agree.
"It's generally not time-dependent; it usually is fund-dependent. But either way, it's up to the road authority to pursue, or not pursue," ODOT Strategic Communications Coordinator Shelley Snow said of such orders.
A dangerous crossing
The Southwest Naito Parkway railroad crossing connects Union Station to the rail tracks that run across the Willamette River on the lower deck of the Steel Bridge. There is no doubt engineers must sound their horns as they approach the crossing. Red lights flash and gate arms lower across Naito to warn and block vehicles. But the arms do not block where pedestrians and bicyclists can still cross the tracks on either side of the street. That includes a multiuse path across the tracks under the bridge on the east side. It is part of the Willamette Greenway.
The risk is especially high now because of the influx of homeless people into the area. Tents line a sidewalk that leads to the crossing. The city of Portland is storing possessions that homeless people can retrieve just below the path under the bridge.
"It is a shockingly unprotected crossing," Freeman said. "Every time I see it, it makes me wonder what on earth is going on. Why would the city not just install the safety infrastructure that would make the greenway path crossing safer, and allow for the implementation of a quiet zone?"
Such changes already have been made at three other crossings in the area included in the order. They are located where Naito intersects Northwest Ninth, 15th and 17th avenues. But that work happened because the Portland Development Commission, now known as Prosper Portland, agreed to pay for the necessary alterations because it was behind much of the development in the area. Hoyt Street Properties, the major developer in the area, also contributed to the costs.
In contrast, railroad companies are much harder to work with.
"Union Pacific is a huge organization and this is just one of thousands of locations," Layden said.
PBOT has not been ignoring the project, however. It has long wanted to create a new pedestrian crossing at Naito near the tracks. In 2011, it received $500,000 grant from ODOT to design and create such a crossing. The plan calls for constructing it along with the work required to create the quiet zone. It is intended to be the final Flanders Street Greenway Project connection to Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
The transportation bureau briefed the Old Town Community Association that represents residents and businesses on its thinking in September 2020. The briefing featured an update on the entire Greenway project, including the coming bridge over I-405, and an illustration showing a completed new pedestrian crossing at Flanders.
Crossing still being designed
But in fact, the Flanders crossing is still being designed, the final costs aren't known, and Union Pacific has not yet agreed to pay its share, although discussions between the bureau and the railroad company are underway. Layden said he does not know when such an agreement might be reached and when the work could begin.
The delay infuriates Freeman and many others affected by the ongoing horns, including those who live in the Pacific Tower Apartments, the Old Town Lofts, The Yards at Union Station, and the McCormick Pier condominiums. All are within a few hundred feet of the crossing. For the past 18 months, Freeman has been on a crusade to force PBOT to act sooner, contacting everyone from PBOT employees to members of former Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's staff — when she was transportation commissioner — to U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer's office.
Freeman and the others say they are angry that PBOT has linked the railroad work to the new pedestrian crossing, insisting that creating the quiet zone could and should have been done first.
"It's confusing, flabbergasting and infuriating," Freeman said.
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