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Blast Zone Despite Legislation Allowing A Ban On Train Whistles, The Nighttime Horns Continue At University Road Crossing

A framed black and white photo hangs in Tony Lazanis’ office - the smiling image of himself, former Gov. Mike Lowry and several other public officials snapped in 1995.

It was a proud moment for the Valley man, the owner of the Eastgate Motel on East Trent. He thought it was the end of a six-year battle to silence the frequent train whistles that have rattled his nerves and shattered his business for years. He watched with anticipation as Lowry signed a new law allowing Spokane County to ban the horns at gated crossings

Two years later, he still waits for quiet.

“People are really suffering here,” said the frustrated motel owner. “It’s been such a long, drawn-out process.”

County officials had hoped to enact a temporary whistle ban at the crossing by his motel this spring. Liability concerns from Burlington Northern Railroad have delayed the process.

The proposed four-month ban at University Road is part of a 12-month study of driver behavior at crossings. Using video cameras, it was designed to compare the unsafe driving practices of drivers before and after the installation of medians and the silencing of whistles.

Results of the study, the first of its kind in the nation, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), will be used by federal officials to design national safety standards for whistle-free train crossings. Residents such as Lazanis hope it will be the first step toward a permanent silence in the Valley.

But Burlington Northern has refused to silence its whistles until the county, state or FRA provides it with liability insurance. Officials from Burlington Northern and the county will spend the next two weeks trying to resolve the issue.

“We’re still very hopeful,” said Bob Brueggeman, a Spokane county traffic engineer.

Lazanis, on the other hand, is growing cynical.

Battles over train whistles have been fought across the nation. Most states mandate whistles at public crossings. In Washington, cities have long had the authority to silence them, if they desired, at gated crossings. Two years ago, after years of rejecting the idea, the state Legislature gave the same power to counties.

But wielding that power has not been easy. Although Spokane County passed an ordinance in 1995 allowing whistle-free stops at crossings such as University Road, the implementation of bans has been delayed by new federal requirements.

In 1994, Congress told the FRA to create federal safety standards for whistle-free crossings. Those standards are still in the works, and won’t be released, even in draft form, until later this summer or fall, said Ron Ries, a regional manager with the FRA.

While it waited for the federal standards, the county decided to create a single 12-month test site at the University Road crossing. Using video cameras, county engineers have been monitoring driver behavior before and after the installation of safety medians. They want to see if they can reduce the practice of sneaking past gates enough so they feel comfortable recommending permanent whistle bans.

After videotaping for four months, the county built a temporary concrete median down the center of the road. It then videotaped an additional four months.

The results were dramatic.

Without the median, 1,984 cars violated crossing laws at the University Road crossing, usually by sneaking around lowered gates as a train approached. With the median, just 76 cars broke the safety laws. Before the median was installed, 109 vehicles snuck around a gate less than 16 seconds before a train barreled by. In one case, a car crossed the tracks just three seconds before the train.

With the median in place, only one vehicle crossed with less than 16 seconds to spare.

The last four-month piece of the county’s study - the subject of current haggling - would compare driver behavior before and after the ban of train whistles.

The University Road crossing study is the first one nationwide, according to the FRA, to quantitatively evaluate driver behavior before and after safety devices are installed. “There’s a lot of interest in what’s being done on University Road,” said Ries, with the FRA. “It certainly does have some national implications.”

It also has local implications, namely for residents near the busy University Road crossing. They can’t wait for a four-month respite from the whistles, and hope it will turn into a permanent quiet for them, and other Valley residents who must now sleep with ear plugs and closed windows.

At least 70 trains pass by Lazanis’ modest motel each day. When they blare their whistles, everything stops: sleep, conversation and business, he said.

The county hopes it can calm the railroad’s fears and proceed with the temporary whistle-ban test as soon as possible. If the entities can reach an agreement in the next few weeks, the county will then ask the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to approve the ban. Silence probably wouldn’t come until September, at the earliest, county officials said.

“We had hoped it would have been more timely than this,” Brueggeman said, adding that the county will not pursue the silencing of whistles at other train crossings until the new federal safety standards are released.

Once those new standards are established, Burlington Northern’s liability concerns may diminish, Brueggeman said.

Ironically, the FRA is hoping to use the University Road test to help design those very standards.

Burlington Northern would not comment on the whistle-ban issue.

Despite all the anticipation, a temporary ban at the University crossing could be just that temporary. It would not guarantee a permanent silence, Brueggeman said.

Still, for Lazanis and his neighbors, it would be a welcome start.

Lazanis and his wife, Ruth, have endured the whistles for 38 years already. They’ve fought to silence them for nearly a decade.

But, Lazanis said, he has never considered moving.

“Everything I have is right here,” the Valley man said. “This may be a poor neighborhood, but we’re good people. We need relief.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 Color)