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In reversal, SMART trains will abide by Petaluma’s new quiet zone for horns

A showdown over train horns in Petaluma came to a head Wednesday with SMART backing away from warnings it would ignore the city’s new quiet zone, which was implemented earlier in the day to restrict train engineers from sounding horns except in emergency situations.

Last-minute negotiations between SMART, federal railroad regulators and Petaluma officials continued Wednesday morning after the city installed “No Train Horn” signs at eight rail crossings. Train engineers ignored the designation by continuing to blast horns.

The dispute carried over into the afternoon when SMART directors, meeting for their regular monthly meeting in Petaluma, made the highly unusual move of adjourning into an emergency closed session to discuss possible litigation related to Petaluma’s actions.

Afterward in open session, Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, conceded the rail agency must abide with the quiet zone.

He said he made that determination after speaking earlier in the day with an unnamed official with the Federal Railroad Administration.

“I think that phone call from the regional FRA is adequate for me to say that we need to go and comply with that (Petaluma’s quiet zone),” Mansourian said in his comments at the meeting. “We’re not happy.”

The decision means Petaluma becomes the first city in Sonoma and Marin counties to implement quiet zones governing train horns, although Mansourian signaled it may be a few days before SMART comes into compliance.

Every city and county jurisdiction in the two counties is at various stages of implementing such zones, amid a deluge of complaints about the noise.

SMART trains are being tested along the initial 43-mile line from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael, with passenger service currently timed to late spring.

SMART officials were caught off-guard by Petaluma’s actions, as the city initially was not the loudest in calling for quiet zones.

That was San Rafael, which put its application on hold last year when SMART delayed the start of passenger service due in part to engine problems on the trains.

SMART director and San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips said Wednesday the city, which is taking the lead on quiet zones in Marin County, will submit the required 21-day notice in coming days to implement the restrictions.

But Phillips said that date may not hold depending on whether officials believe it is safe to move forward with the zones.

Heated debate swirled Wednesday over Petaluma’s stance, with some SMART officials accusing the city of acting selfishly and against the interests of public safety.

SMART director and Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes Petaluma, said the city was “premature” in implementing the quiet zone, noting “it was really based on politics and not working cooperatively on the safety issues here.”

However, Petaluma officials said their actions balanced the desire to keep the public safe while addressing citizen complaints about the noise.

In a letter City Attorney Eric Danly sent to SMART’s attorney Wednesday morning, Danly noted that federal regulations allow train engineers to sound horns at crossings where “testing of the system” is occurring.

“Our understanding has always been ... that those regulations exist so that SMART can complete testing without sacrificing public safety,” Danly said in an interview.

“We would never want to put the public at risk.”

Mansourian said he tried to impress on federal regulators that SMART is still in the testing phase.

But a spokeswoman for the FRA stated in an email Wednesday that Petaluma could proceed with the quiet zone and that SMART “must abide” by the rules.

The rail agency faces fines of up to $7,500 for willfully sounding horns in violation of quiet zones, a fact that played into SMART’s decision to drop its threat to ignore the rules, according to Rabbitt.

Mansourian told the board Wednesday that engineers have made great progress on testing, an update that appeared to clash with his contention Petaluma’s crossings don’t meet safety standards without use of the horns.

Only four of the 63 at-grade crossings in the two counties are malfunctioning, Mansourian said.

They include the Caulfield Lane crossing in Petaluma.

As a result, train engineers can still routinely sound horns at that location despite it being covered by the quiet zone.

Elsewhere, the city’s seven other public crossings are subject to the new rules.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.