Creating a Quiet Zone for Needham has been discussed for many years. The Select Board and several key committees are faced with countless important priorities each year as they weigh how to prudently invest for Needham's future while also operating for today.
So far, creating a Quiet Zone has not achieved a high enough priority to merit the investment of limited time, effort, and money. Priorities change all the time, however, as circumstances change and new information is available. Communicating with the Select Board so that they can be aware of the extent of support for a Quiet Zone in Needham is very important.
With so many people working from home during the pandemic, awareness of the impact of train horn noise has increased substantially. In addition, recent operational changes have extended the hours of train horns from before 5:00 AM to after 11:00 PM during weekdays. The Select Board recently recommended not restoring weekend commuter rail service in part (but not entirely) because of the punishing disturbance associated with the train horns. We are already losing access to transit due (in part) to train horns.
At the same time, two communities (Chelsea and Waltham) recently lost their Quiet Zone status. Chelsea has been working productively to re-establish its Quiet Zone, and therefore is demonstrating for us the process we need to go through to achieve a Quiet Zone for Needham. We are witnessing that when a municipality puts its mind to it, it can achieve Quiet Zone status relatively quickly (a little over two years).
Circumstances have changed and we have new information. It is important that those of us who want to maintain or improve our transit options while also wanting to curtail unnecessary train horns communicate with our friends, neighbors, and community leaders. We can do this.
We can look to Chelsea's experience for an indication. Similar to Needham, Chelsea has six (6) grade crossings that must be addressed to achieve a Quiet Zone.
See the Process section on this Web site for more detailed information. Put simply, there are two major buckets of cost: (1) design and engineering, and (2) construction.
For Chelsea, the design and engineering costs are anticipated to be in the range of $300,000 to $400,000. The construction costs are anticipated to be in the range of $2.6 million to 3.0 million. A total cost of $2.9 million to $3.4 million.
In terms of time, Chelsea commenced work on this in April 2020, and expects to have the work complete in the spring of 2022, roughly 27 months from start to finish.
We are currently investing tens of millions of dollars in new schools, new public safety buildings, and many other big-ticket projects throughout town. Even more such projects are on the horizon. Why? We are continuously improving our community and investing for the future.
Addressing the train horns in Needham is no different. For example, we did not say as a community that the previous substandard public safety buildings are what was there and so all of us chose to live or work under those conditions, never to be changed. Instead, as a community we agreed it was appropriate to make long term investments in upgrading those facilities. A similar discussion could be had around investments in new schools like Sunita Williams Elementary School, which directly benefits only a portion of the Needham community. We are not a static community. And we invest in the community as a whole.
Even those who do not live or work directly near the grade crossings will benefit from creating a Quiet Zone in Needham:
Taxes - Property values near grade crossings are very likely to increase if a Quiet Zone were created in Needham. Those properties, therefore, would represent a larger proportion of the overall tax base, and thus properties further away from grade crossings would represent a relative decrease in the overall tax base. In addition, eliminating train horns would encourage additional investment in Needham, which would allow for added tax revenues over the long term.
Services - There are many underutilized commercial properties near Needham's rail crossings. Without the disruptive train horns, additional investment in these properties, resulting in significantly improved potential for added services, dining options, office space, and much more would be encouraged. This would result in added tax revenues for Needham and an improved quality of life for all residents.
At the Needham golf course there is a cart path / pedestrian grade crossing near Hersey Station. Because this crossing is on private property, as opposed to a public road, the process of quieting the train horns will be different in some ways. Nevertheless, a similar approach of having a diagnostic team review of the crossing and proposed safety improvements will be needed. Ultimately, the MBTA and Keolis will need to agree with the proposed safety improvements to suspend routine use of train horns at this crossing.
Given the high level of coordination among Needham, its transit engineer, the MBTA, Keolis, the FRA, and other stakeholders, that will already be necessary as part of pursuing Quiet Zone status for the five (5) public road crossings, it is most efficient and comprehensive to resolve the golf course at the same time.
If any of these ideas happen, they are many, many years away. In the meantime we can address the train horn issue relatively quickly. Also, many of these solutions will likely still require similar safety measures.
Safer Quieter Needham's focus is on eliminating non-emergency train horns.