The sound of a train whistle floating through an open window during the middle of the night is a common occurrence for Lodi residents.
For the first time, the Lodi City Council discussed the idea of reducing that noise with a quiet zone at a shirtsleeve session on Tuesday.
Mayor JoAnne Mounce, who lives on the Eastside, and Councilman Phil Katzakian, who lives near the railroad tracks in a subdivision next to the Mokelumne River, both described the train noise as consistent throughout the night.
"When I went to college, I even missed the trains," Mounce said. "It's an interesting charm of Lodi."
City staff suggested the idea to gauge council interest because they will be negotiating with Union Pacific Railroad on some other issues in the near future. If the council is interested in a quiet zone, it is something they could include in their discussions, Public Works Director Wally Sandelin said.
"I'm not looking to burn brain cells working with U.P. on this issue, but I thought it could be a nice improvement and an issue to bring to the council to see if you are interested," he told the council.
Since 2005, federal law has allowed cities to work with railroads to create quiet zones in exchange for safety improvements at all of the railroad crossings in the zone.
The safety improvements are to alert drivers and pedestrians that a train is coming and prevent them from crossing. In a quiet zone, conductors still have full discretion to sound their horn in the case of an emergency.
Councilman Bob Johnson worried Lodi would invest money in a quiet zone and conductors would still blow their horns. Recently, he was at a League of California Cities meeting at a hotel in San Diego, which is supposed to be a quiet zone, and heard train horns all night long.
"There's some discretion of the engineer. If some cowboy decides he wants to blow his horn at 3 a.m. going through Lodi, he can," Johnson said.
Sandelin focused his research on Elk Grove, which has successfully reduced almost all train noise with a quiet zone.
"The people in Elk Grove are very happy the train horns are not blowing all night long," Sandelin said.
Elk Grove spent $500,000 to make the modifications, but Sandelin pointed out that that city's intersections were originally built in 1995, which is significantly more recent than Lodi's intersections.
In Lodi, the train crosses at seven intersections: Lockeford, Locust, Elm and Pine streets, Lodi and Tokay avenues, and Harney Lane. The city has already approved a project to separate the railroad from the roadway at Harney Lane, so once that is constructed conductors will not need to blow their horn at that location.
Federal law requires a quiet zone to be at least a half-mile long. There are 29 throughout the state, including ones in Sacramento, Stockton and Elk Grove.
The railroad will require safety improvements for a quiet zone because the horn is usually the warning system for drivers and pedestrians, Sandelin said.
Improvements could include installing medians, constructing a four-quadrant gate system, changing one of the intersections into a one-way street with gates, or the permanent closure of an intersection.
A rough estimate of costs to upgrade intersections in Lodi is $2 million, but Sandelin said he would have to do significantly more research before giving any more specific numbers.
The city rarely receives complaints about train horn noise, Sandelin said, although most of the council members said they have noticed there is at least one conductor who leans on the horn in the middle of the night.
Train noise in Lodi can be louder than other areas because of its geography, Sandelin said.
"We live in such a flat area (that) if they start blowing at Armstrong Road, we can hear it in town," he said.
One of the challenges in Lodi is the number of crossings that would need to be improved in a short area, Sandelin said.
"Lodi is probably a unique community with the number of at-grade crossings we have at a short distance," he said.
The city could fund the improvements in a variety of ways, but Sandelin would have to investigate before making suggestions. Mounce said she would not be in favor of using any money that could instead go to street repairs.
"We barely have enough money to keep up with our street repairs already. ... To use existing street funding or repair money, I would be very hesitant," she said.
Johnson suggested Sandelin put together a presentation at a future meeting with all of the projects the city will need to work with the railroad on in the upcoming years.
"I, for one, would like to see the whole ball of wax laid out," Johnson said. "Don't give me one piece of the puzzle in September and then let me see the rest of it in December."
Councilman Larry Hansen, who is a former Lodi police chief, said that when he was an officer he worked several accidents where people were struck by trains.
He said the city can consider the idea of a quiet zone, but does not want it to be a big expense.
"You gotta believe that at times the sound of a horn has prevented people from getting hurt or killed because they are daydreaming, have their radio on or whatever and the horn gets their attention," Hansen said.