SOUTH BURLINGTON -- For the last five years, Barbara Leslie has lived just a stone's throw from the railroad crossing on Bartlett Bay Road. She was never bothered much by the freight trains and occasional passenger coaches that rumbled through several times each day -- until this spring, when trains suddenly began blowing their whistles at all hours of the day and night.
"I can't begin to tell you how bad it is," Leslie says. "I get woken up at 3:30, 4 o'clock in the morning. I'm on the edge of waking up and then can't get back to sleep, so I'm tired all day. It's gone from ridiculous to absurd."
Like many residents who live along the Burlington-to-Rutland spur of the Vermont Railway, Leslie sounded off to city hall and her state representatives about the train horns. For the last six years, this stretch of rail was considered a "quiet zone." It was a concession the state made to residents of Burlington, South Burlington and Shelburne when it first started using the track to operate the Champlain Flyer commuter train.
Since 2000, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has installed and maintained 13 so-called "silent crossings" between Burlington and Shelburne; they require more gates, flashing lights and electronics than traditional railroad crossings. But last year, after a series of accidents in other parts of the country, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) outlawed silent crossings on all public roadways, except for those that were specifically exempted.
A few months ago, an FRA inspector questioned why Vermont Railways trains were not blowing their horns at public grade crossings in Burlington and South Burlington, and instructed them to start doing so immediately. The FRA will allow the cities of Burlington and South Burlington to apply to have their quiet zones "grandfathered in," but until then, the horns must sound at every crossing, day or night.
The federal change in policy was "a complete surprise to us," wrote Dawn Terrill, the Vermont Secretary of Transportation, in an email to Senator Jim Condos (D-Chittenden). But it's forced the state to look at another sticky issue: Who's responsible for maintaining the crossings? Because the Champlain Flyer has been discontinued, it's unclear whether VTrans intends to pay for the continued upkeep and insurance on the three silent crossings on public roads -- at Flynn and Home Avenues in Burlington, and at Bartlett Bay Road in South Burlington -- for a total cost of $215,000 per year.
"I question if it is prudent to spend in excess of $1,000,000 in state funds over the next five years to keep such a system in place for the few freight trains that currently operate daily through the communities," Terrill writes.
Only two freight trains are scheduled to run on that track each day -- one at 9 a.m. and another at 11:30 p.m. -- as well as three roundtrip passenger trains from June through September, according to VTrans Communications Director John Zicconi. Occasionally, trains do run off-schedule, and extra trains are sometimes added to carry additional freight, he says.
"I don't want anyone to get the impression that at 4 a.m. seven days a week there's a train rolling through there blowing its horn," Zicconi says. "Can it happen and does it happen? The answer is yes. Is it an everyday occurrence? No."
But residents and city officials in South Burlington dispute the number and frequency of trains rolling through their community. Moreover, they point out that the state signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the local municipalities several years ago to maintain the quiet zone, and now must live up to that commitment.
"I'm not buying the story that VTrans is portraying," says Condos. "From my standpoint it's irresponsible on VTrans' part to make those kind of changes after they agreed to something in the beginning."
Zicconi emphasizes that the state has no intention of removing the silent-crossing equipment already in place, and says that VTrans will assist local municipalities in applying for quiet-zone reinstatement. But when asked if the state also plans to foot the bill, Zicconi says, "We still have to figure that out."
Condos says that answer is unacceptable.
"Frankly, that's 1 cent of our property taxes that would have to be raised" to cover the $215,000 expense, he says. "As city council chair and state senator, I'll be damned if I'm going to allow the state to walk all over a local community when they've made an agreement in the past."
For her part, Leslie says the timing of the new train-whistle policy couldn't be worse, as the city just reappraised all residential properties. Her own house, which she bought five years ago for $132,000, was just reassessed at $321,000. She says it would make it very difficult for her to sell her home if potential buyers found out they're living 150 feet from a loud railroad crossing.
"They put all that money into upgrading that infrastructure and now they're throwing it all away!" she says. "This is just a classic example of a bureaucratic screw-up and double talk."