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Proposals on reducing railroad noise lead to staff vs. council discussion

A debate at Tuesday’s Spokane Valley City Council meeting on whether to hire a consultant to research railroad quiet zones turned into a discussion of who has the authority to select the city’s consultants.

City staff had presented a proposed contract with the engineering firm David Evans and Associates for $82,000 to research options for creating quiet zones at the Union Pacific crossings on Park Road and Vista Road north of Trent as well as coordinating with the Federal Railroad Administration. Installing the hardware required to create the zones could cost between $390,000 and $825,000 for both crossings.

After much discussion, the motion to approve the contract failed.

At a previous council meeting the council members asked for more information on the cost of wayside horns. The horns are mounted on a pole at the crossings and are pointed directly at traffic, said traffic engineer Inga Note. “It replaces the whistle on the train with a horn,” she said. Note said she received a cost estimate between $65,000 and $180,000 per crossing for the horns.

Councilman Arne Woodard presented his fellow council members with a brochure from the Texas-based company Quiet Zone Technologies that makes and sells the Automated Horn System. The company is a division of Railroad Controls Limited.

Woodard said he spoke to someone at the company who told him the city may be able to make the entire railroad corridor through Spokane Valley a quiet zone without putting in the usually required gates or barriers at each crossing. “He gave me an education,” Woodard said. “He sells quiet zones. He’s done 200 intersections across the country.”

Woodard said he would like to see the company come and do a demonstration and give a quote. He’s not willing to spend more than $80,000 if there may be other options, Woodard said. “I really think we have some more research to do,” he said.

“I went on that website, too,” said Councilman Dean Grafos. “Arne, I want to thank you for your research. I do believe that we don’t have enough information. I think we need to be educated before we spend that kind of money.”

Councilman Bill Gothmann said that staff could research the issue further, but that any kind of quiet zone option would have to be designed by a professional engineer.

“We need to be careful that council doesn’t venture too far into administrative duties,” said City Manager Mike Jackson. The city must follow many state regulations that govern city contracts and the city can only pick consultants based on their qualifications, he said. David Evans and Associates was selected because they were on the list of qualified firms. The Texas company has not been similarly vetted.

“It’s best that pricing and negotiations are left to the staff,” Jackson said. “In fact, it’s required.”

Woodard said he wanted more information on the Texas company. “We don’t know that Robert at AHS is not a licensed engineer,” he said.

The employee list on the company’s website does not seem to include any engineers. A Railroad Controls Limited representative contacted via phone said the company does not have any engineers on staff.

It is not up to the council to select which consultant to use, Gothmann said. “That’s up to staff,” he said. “It’s not our job to choose that person. We approve the contract.”

Mayor Tom Towey agreed. “We can certainly ask for more information,” he said. “There is a distinction between the responsibility of the council and the responsibility of the staff. It is not our responsibility to pick who is our consultant.”

“I think that’s a good system,” Gothmann said. “We don’t want a system of government whereby Bill Gothmann can go over and put his arm around a buddy and say ‘I’ll get you a contract.’ ”

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel said that she would like to see more information before agreeing to a contract, while Councilman Chuck Hafner said he wasn’t in favor of approving a contract with anyone, citing the economy and the need for a new Sullivan Road bridge. “This whole project is not necessarily priority one with me,” he said.

Only Gothmann voted to approve it. Councilman Gary Schimmels was absent. Later in the meeting, however, Grafos said he would like to see more information on wayside horns at a later meeting. “I don’t think we should drop that issue,” he said.

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