The city of Waco is trying to make the sound of train horns through downtown a thing of the past.
The downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board on Thursday agreed to fund a city study for an official “quiet zone” from 11th Street to Peach Street in East Waco along the Union Pacific rail corridor. Within the zone, trains would be prohibited from blowing their horns, which can reach an ear-splitting 110 decibels. City Manager Dale Fisseler said the noise has discouraged development in the blocks around the train tracks.
But creating the zone wouldn’t be cheap. The TIF board agreed to spend up to $450,000 on the study, starting with a $100,000 first phase that would wrap up in December.
The TIF Zone uses a portion of property taxes generated from downtown properties to fund improvements in the zone. Recommendations from the TIF board must be approved by the Waco City Council.
The study would determine what safety measures are needed in place of the warning horn, including new crossing signals, arms, fencing and roadway modifications. The cost of those improvements won’t be known until fall, city of Waco traffic engineer Eric Gallt said.
“If the cost is $20 million, people are going to be nervous, but if it’s $500,000, I think everyone will be comfortable,” Gallt said.
The Federal Railroad Administration sets the rules for quiet zones, which suspend the usual federal standards on train warning horns. Outside a quiet zone, trains must sound their horns at least 15 seconds before a public grade crossing. That’s about 220 feet for a train traveling at 10 mph, the typical speed for downtown trains. A train passing through downtown would sound its horn almost continuously because of the numerous crossings.
Those crossings are at Peach Street, University Parks Drive and Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and 11th Streets. City officials aim to keep all of those crossings open but make them all but impossible to cross when a train is coming.
That means putting gates up at Second and Third Street and likely improving other crossings so cars can’t drive around the gates. That may include “channelizing” the lanes using bollards or medians.
Jackson Avenue, which runs adjacent to the UP tracks, will likely have to be modified, perhaps turned into a one-way street, Gallt said.
“Jackson Avenue is going to be the biggest stumbling block,” he said. “The road at Jackson isn’t wide enough for parking, and it’s not really meant for pedestrians.”
Gallt said state grants could be available to fund some of work on Jackson and the adjacent grade crossings.
TIF board member Malcolm Duncan Jr. called Jackson a “compromised street” and suggested it could be closed.
Mayor Kyle Deaver, who is the Waco City Council’s liaison to the TIF board, suggested that the scope of the study should be expanded to consider crossings south of 11th Street. He said southbound trains might have to sound their horns well before they get to 13th Street.
City Manager Dale Fisseler said the study could look at what the appropriate boundaries should be for the quiet zone.
Pending approval by the Federal Railroad Administration, the improvements could be constructed by late next year, and the quiet zone could take effect in 2019, Gallt said.
Columbus Ave. offices
Also Thursday, the TIF board approved $534,000 for streetscape and façade improvements at 600 Columbus Ave., where a Waco partnership is planning to turn an old 20,535-square-foot building into a modern office complex. The TIF board also approved some offsite sidewalk improvements whose costs have not yet been calculated.
Marshall Stewman, of Deluge Holdings LLC, said the group plans to do a historically appropriate renovation of the 1920s building, a former Studebaker dealership that housed the McLennan County Appraisal District until it moved in 2009. The group is already demolishing the interior to expose the original pressed-tin ceilings and large open spaces.
It will remove the stucco façade and replace it with large windows and glass doors, shaded by an awning, funded in part with TIF money. TIF funds would also cover 600 feet of lighted, landscaped sidewalks along Columbus Avenue and Sixth Street and pay for the burial of overhead utility lines.
Stewman said the group plans to put about $1 million into the project, and he already has tenant interest. He said downtown Waco is lacking in office space, and the project will bring a customer base for retail and restaurants.
“Our hope here is to bring in tech jobs and improve median income in the community,” he said. “This creates a really cool place where people would want to work.”
The project also includes a parking lot a block away on Sixth Street. Stewman had asked for funds to continue the landscaped, lighted sidewalk down to that parking lot. But City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson told the board that the walkway was not a high priority pedestrian corridor and probably didn’t justify public spending on lighting and trees. The TIF board agreed to fund a basic sidewalk in the parking lot area but preserve some existing sidewalk on Sixth Street that doesn’t need to be replaced.
Stewman is also the developer behind Mary Avenue Market a few blocks away at 300 Sixth Street.