City Presses On with Quiet Zone — Despite Rising Costs

Citing previous commitments, Canby’s city leaders agreed to press forward last week with the installation of the long-discussed railroad quiet zones at the downtown intersections of Elm, Grant and Ivy — despite rising and recurring costs about which virtually all councilors voiced frustration.

Canby City Attorney Joe Lindsay, in his first act as newly appointed interim city administrator, explained to the council during their regular meeting last Wednesday that the estimated cost of the new signals, lights and other safety equipment Union Pacific Railroad plans to install at the three intersections to effect the quiet zone had come back $95,000 higher than anticipated.

The projected costs had been $267,000 — or about $89,000 per intersection — but Lindsay told the council last week that UP’s new estimate had been increased to $362,000. Under the quiet zone agreement, Canby would be expected to reimburse the railroad for the purchase of the new equipment.

Even more frustrating to most of the councilors was the new wrinkle of a sizable annual “maintenance fee” — $48,000 — that UP would expect the city to pay.

Lindsay described this as an example of the rail authorities “chang[ing] their minds” and now expecting local governing authorities to reimburse them for the upkeep and review costs associated with quiet zones.

“They weren’t charging an annual maintenance fee before,” Lindsay said. “Now, they’re charging somewhere around $19,000 per intersection. The quote that they gave us was $48,000 annually for our three intersections. So, that’s another ongoing cost.”

After consulting with Canby Finance Director Julie Blums, Lindsay was of the mind that the city could fund the unexpected cost with road maintenance fees or its portion of the county’s new vehicle registration fee.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Councilor Sarah Spoon said of the maintenance fee, seeming to sum up the opinions of several of her fellow council members. “I’m frustrated by it, but I guess it is what it is.”

With the additional cost estimate from the railroad and the current bids for constructing the quiet zone and Grant Street gateway arch project, the cost of the project would be $1.7 million — a figure that the remaining indebtedness in the urban renewal district budget could cover, but one that city leaders seemed to have difficulty stomaching.

However, Lindsay said both projects received only one bid each — and both were viewed by city staff as unnecessarily high. A new bid process this winter, when contractors are less busy, would be likely to receive more competitive — i.e., lower bids, he said.

Another factor in the decision was a previous commitment the council had made to the developers of the Dahlia project to diligently pursue a quiet zone in downtown Canby — if possible.

“We’ve already made a commitment that we’re going to do this,” said Greg Parker, who was a member of the council when the Dahlia was approved (Spoon and Councilor Shawn Varwig were not). “Prices are going up, but you know if we had done this earlier, maybe it would have been cheaper. So let’s go ahead and get this done.”

Though Varwig had not been part of any previous commitment, he made it clear that he is in favor of the quiet zone, saying there is “a lot of activity” happening in downtown Canby — much of it centered around the Dahlia — and he thinks the city should continue to invest in that positive direction.

“I’m excited about where our downtown is going,” he said. “Where I don’t get excited is when I’m sitting downtown, trying to have a glass of wine with some friends and the train goes by and blares its horn.

“I’m in full support of the quiet zone,” Councilor Varwig continued. “I don’t love that costs are going up, but that’s normal. I think we need to continue moving forward with it and make it happen.”

Though no decision was made Wednesday, the possibility of peeling off the Grant Street arch was discussed as one easy way to reduce the project’s overall costs.

The downtown arch — which was initially estimated at $217,000 but has also seen its price tag go up in recent months — was combined with the quiet zone to reduce costs and make it so Grant Street needed to be closed to traffic only once rather than twice.

Mayor Brian Hodson also floated the idea of relocating a “Welcome to Canby” message to an existing “arch” of sorts: the Molalla Forest Road walking trail overpass above Highway 99E.

But Councilor Spoon argued that would defeat the purpose of building the arch in the first place: to entice 99E travelers to leave the highway and visit downtown Canby.

She also voiced irritation at the possibility that the project might be discarded to trim costs for the quiet zone.

“At this point, we’ve tied a relatively easy project to a complicated project, and now we’re talking about trashing the easy project because the complicated project was too complicated,” she said. “I’m just expressing frustration about the process, because the whole selling point on tying the projects together was efficiency, and I don’t feel like it’s been more efficient.”

The long-debated and oft-maligned quiet zone project would make it so train engineers are no longer required to sound their horns as they pass the three intersections in downtown Canby. They would still sound the horn if a car or pedestrian were in the crossing, or to alert people of other emergency situations.

The quiet zone designation, which had to be approved by Union Pacific Railroad and other authorities, including ODOT, comes part and parcel with a number of safety improvements at the three intersections, such as concrete medians designed to prevent cars from driving around the arms of the railroad gates.

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