At nearly every Shakopee City Council meeting, it happens — a train comes chugging through the city’s downtown. Conversations stop as council members wait for it to pass through every nearby intersection, its horn blaring 15 to 20 seconds each time.
“It can last up to five minutes sometimes,” Mayor Brad Tabke said.
Trains have rumbled through Shakopee with horns blasting for decades, but as rail traffic has picked up in the past few years, so has opposition to the noise. The city has been considering the implementation of a “quiet zone,” an area downtown where the trains wouldn’t sound their horns, at the request of some residents and business owners.
But such a change comes with a price. It would cost between $2 million and $5 million to make safety upgrades needed for a quiet zone, according to SRF, a consulting firm the city hired to study the issue. And a representative of Union Pacific said the railroad believes quiet zones make intersections more dangerous for cars and pedestrians.
The city needs to do more research, but officials will have to decide whether peace and quiet is worth the investment, Council Member Matt Lehman said.
“That’s a lot of money to stop a whistle that’s been blowing for over a hundred years,” said Lehman, who is on the city’s Railroad Safety Committee.
Tabke said the noise has become a concern as the city has discussed revitalizing its downtown and trying to attract residential development in the area.
“My goal is to help the downtown by either reducing the amount that the train horn blows or eliminating it through a quiet zone,” he said.
Union Pacific follows the federal “quiet zone” rules, but the company believes the zones compromise safety, said spokesman Mark Davis.
Horns are the best way to warn people that trains are approaching, he said. Trains run through Shakopee five times a day, carrying mostly grain. “Safety is the bottom line,” Davis said.
The railroad tracks in Shakopee cross 14 public intersections in the downtown area — seven with gates and seven without. Cities must install gates and flashing lights at each crossing to become a quiet zone, Lehman said.
Additional changes may also be needed to make a quiet zone safe. The safest choice, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, would be closing some intersections.
In places where drivers have been known to sneak around single gates, other modifications may be necessary: installing four-quadrant gates with four arms blocking traffic across all lanes, adding medians, or designating one-way streets.
The report estimates four-quadrant gates cost $900,000 each, while creating a one-way street runs at least $400,000. Tabke said he hoped the state would help with the cost.
The next step is scheduling public meetings so the council can hear residents’ thoughts, Tabke said.
Shelly Brinkhaus, whose boutique is near the tracks, said the horn is “pretty obnoxious.” But she also sees the railroad as a tie to Shakopee’s history.
“This is a small town,” she said. “I like the authenticity of it.”