A constituent who has been actively engaged with District Two issues and been a great resource for thoughtful conversation and debate recently asked the question on his personal social media: "New train horn at 3am - what is going on??" and tagged me on the post.
The City has been working on train issues for some time, but when I saw this post, before I filled this gentleman and his followers in on the backstory, I wanted to check on what the new horn time meant, if anything. The response from the City staff member who is in regular contact with the railroad about the crossing delays and noise was indeed offering new information:
"The Eastern Wharf line has a new operator that started a few weeks ago called Watco. We have a meeting scheduled with them next Thursday to discuss the history of our issues. I reached out to them this morning to make them aware of the problems we experienced Friday night."
Here is some history on the situation with the train that can be a source of frustration for so many Savannahians and a few of my thoughts on this:
In the past there has been some informal agreements between the City and the railroad in particular to manage the long delays that happened at the crossing on East President Street, as well as to minimize noise from whistles. The reality is that when a new manager takes over without any knowledge of the agreement, or if there is a need to schedule something at a time when the agreement was supposed to limit that, the City has no enforcement authority over the railroad. I believe this dates all the way back to the US western expansion in the 1800s and the high level of autonomy the railroads were given (along with a lot of land) to encourage development. They seem to still have that level of independence. If you've noticed how bad many of the roadbeds are at RR crossings, it's because that is part of the RR right-of-way and we have no way to force them to maintain the crossing properly.
One reason the train has to go back and forth so much at that crossing is that operator does not have access to the switching yard a little farther down the tracks, so the cars have to be switched by going in and out of the limited track space along the riverfront. We hope that a new contract next year will be with an operator who can use that switching yard.
The whistle blowing is required (Federal law) at any RR crossing that does not have physical barriers for vehicular traffic. There are 24 crossings on the east side of Savannah that train has to traverse. At least one reason for the late night horns is an effort to move the train when there is less traffic.
There is a tool that could help (don't get your hopes up) that some people are talking about now called a "Quiet Zone." If we could get that enacted, the train would no longer be required to blow the horn constantly as they travel through the City
To get the Quiet Zone, we first have to do a risk assessment of all 24 crossings. The assessment has been done and we found there are 10 crossings that need an upgrade before we could request the Quiet Zone designation. The upgrade would require us (the RR is not going to do it) to install cross bars or some other devices at each of those crossings, at a cost of $6.6 million. We don't have it. That is one of the many projects that was proposed for the next round of SPLOST penny tax money we will be voting on this fall, but it was part of a total of almost $800 million in projects, all valid, worthwhile ideas. Of the $400 million total SPLOST funds expected to be generated in the County, Savannah will get about $155 million. It’s all about priorities and this simply does not rise to the level necessary to get funded, as far as I'm concerned, when we have decades of neglected infrastructure needs and deferred maintenance that must be addressed in storm water management and road and sidewalk repairs.
Even if we could find the $6.6 million, that is only the capital costs. Apparently, if we do the upgrade on 10 crossings, we have to assume maintenance on all 24 crossings, to the tune of $150,000-$200,000 annually (this is an early estimate and the costs are being reexamined) that would have to come from our General Fund, already heavily stressed with current needs, especially Fire and Police. Adding another line item like that is going to be very difficult.
But that is not even the real problem, at least to me. In addition to assuming all maintenance costs, we might also have to assume some liability for the crossings. The rules on this are not clear, but the potential cost of that, even from just one crossing accident, could be millions. That is the breaking point for me. I cannot support a solution that creates such a potential financial liability for the City.
Another sticking point for me is that the railroad operation is part of a regional business benefit to the larger, multi-county area, not just the City of Savannah. The East President Street crossing is not even in the City, but part of the unincorporated county. Any effort tackling this issue should be a County Commission effort, yet this is another example of regional issues (like homelessness) where everyone expects the Savannah city taxpayer to pick up the tab, while unincorporated county residents, and residents of the other municipalities, pay nothing.