San Diego Quiet Zone
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Pair of agencies at odds over 'quiet zone' plan

Union-Tribune Staff Writer

2:00 a.m. July 31, 2009

Downtown San Diego residents thought they were within sight of their final stop on the multiyear journey to establish a horn-free “quiet zone” along downtown's railroad line.

The $20.6 million program got what appeared to be the final “all aboard” last September when the City Council authorized going out to bid.

But nearly a year later, train horns still keep downtowners awake. No work has begun on the project, which would lessen the need for horns by installing gates, median barriers and other safety measures.

The last problem appears to be a dispute between two public agencies – San Diego's downtown redevelopment agency and the North County Transit District, which operates Coaster trains.

At issue is $2 million worth of work. It might not seem like much, as the project has already grown from the 2005 estimate of $3.5 million. But with the state government claiming millions in redevelopment dollars from cities to close its budget gap, San Diego's Centre City Development Corp. seems ready to fight.

“They see the CCDC ATM machine at the door, and it's an opportunity to have us pay for improvements,” said Fred Maas, chairman of the nonprofit city agency that guides downtown redevelopment.

“We don't have $2 million to spare,” said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who has championed the quiet zone project and worked to move it forward for his district.

The North County Transit District says the only goal is safety. The disputed work wouldn't need to be done if the rail lines were not being disturbed for the project, said Tom Kelleher, district spokesman.

“We are not trying to get CCDC to pay for improvements that we would not otherwise make,” Kelleher said. “These are not things we would normally need to do.”

The dispute is over whether various pieces of equipment and railroad infrastructure can be reused or must be replaced after quiet zone construction. The CCDC and the North County district differ over these conclusions.

The two sides are set to negotiate at an Aug. 13 meeting. If there's agreement, construction could begin in January, CCDC officials said. The work would take a year and be paid for by downtown redevelopment tax dollars.

If that happens, Pat McArron might finally get a good night's rest. The Marina district condo owner moderates the Web site, which gets about 30 complaints a month about nighttime train whistles. He and other downtown residents say they are getting restless about the slow progress.

“What's new is the frustration at how long it's taken,” said McArron, one of several interested parties who attended a project meeting called by Faulconer yesterday.

“It's so bureaucratic, we're starting to lose faith it's even going to happen.”

The quiet zone has required San Diego officials to get agreement from Amtrak, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the Metropolitan Transit System, the San Diego Trolley and the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad, in addition to the Coaster agency.

It's not just residents – who, according to critics of the project, should expect urban noise including trains. Officials at the downtown Omni Hotel and Marriott Hotel & Marina said train noise is the No. 1 guest complaint.

Downtown San Diego's quiet zone, set into motion by a 2005 federal ruling allowing such a project, would cover 13 railroad crossings between Laurel Street and Park Boulevard.

San Diego's project is believed to be one of the most ambitious in the country. Del Mar, Carlsbad and Oceanside are also looking at the possibility, but funding is a problem.

“Our goal is to ensure that it's safe, No. 1, obviously,” Faulconer said yesterday. “But I don't want hang-ups on turf warfare to slow this project down.”

In the Union-Tribune on Page B1

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