The long blast of train horns may soon be history in the heart of the Old Pueblo.
City leaders looking to expand the transportation and logistics industry in Tucson have proposed a "no-whistle" zone at four central railroad crossings as part of its Downtown Links project, said Tom Fisher, a project manager with the department.
"We have 51 to 55 trains a day coming through and that is set to increase because of increased trade with Mexico," he said. City consultants are working with the Federal Railroad Administration and have applied for what the federal agency calls "Quiet Zones."
The four crossings proposed for silence are:
• Ninth Avenue and Sixth Street;
• Main Avenue and Davis Street;
• Sixth Street, west of Stone Avenue; and
• Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street.
"It's a positive thing for all of the downtown neighborhoods," said Vice Mayor Regina Romero, whose Ward I constituents get a healthy dose of train honks. She said silencing the trains could help residents embrace increased logistics-related activity.
"It's good for quality of life and good for the economy," Romero said.
Support for nurturing a distribution hub in Southern Arizona has always had support. But the recent and future expansions at the Port of Guaymas in Sonora and the growth of online shopping has made it a hot topic.
Industry proponents say the warehousing, freight storage and distribution industries create good-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced.
A national report cites Tucson as one of the least expensive cities in which to operate a distribution warehouse. Its proximity to key U.S. and international markets makes it attractive to companies looking to expand or relocate.
But there is a downside to increased activity.
"Look. We have 50 to 60 trains coming through each day, eight from Mexico," said Mike Holmes, executive director of Imagine Greater Tucson. "From Guaymas alone, that number is going to triple."
The Federal Railroad Administration has specific rules on when trains must sound a warning blast, but allows municipalities to apply for an exemption.
In 2010, the city of Flagstaff heard its last train horn after years of trying to silence the more than 75 trains that roll through the city each day. Last year, Tempe enacted its "Quiet Zone."
To get the exemption, a city must install regulated crosswalks, gates and lights to warn pedestrians about the presence of a train.
That government and business leaders are thinking ahead is a positive sign, Holmes said.
"This is the first time Tucson has had the opportunity to adapt a transportation plan to the business we want," he said. "That is a really cool thing, and we want the community's input. We need to talk to the people and find out what they're willing to put up with."
New interstate possible
Aside from increased rail traffic, freight trucks need a way to get around and through the city with minimal impact on local commuters.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is advocating for a new roadway that would connect two University of Arizona research parks, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Arizona Air National Guard, Tucson International Airport and the Port of Tucson, on the city's southeast side.
The Hughes Access Road relocation would become part of a parkway, along with Old Vail Connection Road, to form a new state highway from Interstate 10 at Rita Road to Nogales Highway near the airport. A future project would connect the parkway to Interstate 19.
A proposed interstate road between Phoenix and Las Vegas would also make the corridor more appealing to the distribution industry.
Transportation officials in Nevada and Arizona are studying the potential for Interstate 11. Phoenix and Las Vegas remain the largest U.S. cities not linked by an interstate highway corridor.
The combined population of Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Reno was less than 700,000 when the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was enacted.
It now stands at 8 million.
Community input needed
Imagine Greater Tucson, which was created to seek community input and create a vision of Tucson's future, is planning to gather feedback from the community about the pros and cons of becoming a distribution hub.
"What are the implications? What does it look like?" said John Shepard, senior adviser at Sonoran Institute and an Imagine Greater Tucson board member. "How are we going to move? How are goods, in particular, going to move within the Sun Corridor?
"It's a pretty complicated conversation and involves a lot of tradeoffs and choices," he said. "IGT can help the community understand what its choices look like."
Recently, the Tucson New Car Dealers Association ponied up $50,000 for Imagine Greater Tucson to start surveying residents and implement plans for town halls on the subject.
Holmes, of Imagine Greater Tucson, said he is eager to hear the community's ideas.
"These changes are coming whether we do anything about them or not," he said. "We're in a place where we can decide what to do about them versus just letting it happen."
The group is working with the business community to garner support for improved infrastructure to support logistics, Holmes said.
Within the year, town halls will give the public a chance to view proposed maps and ask questions, he said.
"People need to educate themselves about what is happening with Interstate 11 and at the Port of Guaymas," Holmes said. "They need to understand what 20 or 50 percent more freight traffic on our highways means and then they need to get involved.
"We hope everyone will participate in the process," he said. "We need to hear from you."
Train horn rules
Under the Federal Railroad Administration's Train Horn Rules, locomotive engineers must sound train horns for at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.
Train horns must be sounded in a pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or cab car occupies the grade crossing.
The maximum volume level for the train horn is 110 decibels, and the minimum sound level is 96 decibels.
Source: Federal Railroad Administration
Imagine Greater Tucson
To learn more about Imagine Greater Tucson's plans to seek input about making Tucson a transportation hub or to get involved, visit imaginegreatertucson.org or call 209-2448.
Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4232.