The wayside horns at the railroad crossings at Fanning Drive and Steves Boulevard may sound a little different soon as city of Flagstaff officials test to find out if there is a horn noise that may be more palatable for residents on the east side of the city.
The city is taking up this issue after Matt Nichols, a resident in the Swiss Manor neighborhood, gathered signatures on a petition asking the city council to remove the wayside horns. The horns were installed around 2010, when the city and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway agreed to stop the trains from blaring their horns when they passed the five at-grade crossings in the city.
However, only Fanning Drive and Steves Boulevard received the wayside horns; the other at-grade crossings utilized other safety features, which the Federal Railroad Administration deems enough to merit eliminating the train and also wayside horns.
The crossings at Beaver and San Francisco streets intersect with one-way streets, which was identified as a supplemental safety measure. The crossing at Ponderosa Parkway has medians, which prevents cars from circumnavigating the gate when it is lowered for a train, City Engineer Rick Barrett said in a presentation to the council.
“I don’t think it’s been an improvement for a number of residents in the area,” Nichols said. “Depending on the weather, it can feel like the train is right outside your door or window, especially in the summer when we want to keep our windows open and enjoy the weather.”
Nichols said he has lived in the Swiss Manor area for more than eight years and the wayside horns have always bothered him. Finally, he said, he had “lost enough sleep” to ask the council to do something about it.
“Our quality of life has been diminished by the noise pollution of the wayside horns,” he said.
Nichols estimates the horns blare between 10 and 11 times per train, and sometimes they can last 30 seconds.
“If there are 100 trains a day with horns for 30 seconds each, we are closing in on almost an hour of horns per day,” he said.
At the council meeting Barrett said the Federal Railroad Administration requires wayside horns to be between 92 and 110 decibels at 100 feet from the horn. The city’s wayside horns are set at 95 decibels at 100 feet away.
By comparison, a standard train horn is between 110 and 120 decibels at the same distance.
“With the train horns, they were much louder, but went for much less duration and fewer times,” Nichols said.
Nichols said he enjoys the quiet zone downtown and wonders if outdoor dining and drinks on restaurant patios would be as popular or enjoyable if there were wayside horns downtown. Removing the horns on the east side is an issue of equity, he said.
“At what point does the council value the residents on the east side as much as the residents and tourists downtown?” he asked.
The city has five supplemental safety options for zones where train horns are removed, Barrett said in his presentation. The options are: wayside horns, one-way streets like on Beaver and San Francisco streets, a median like on Ponderosa Parkway, a four-quadrant gate system that lowers on both sides of the road when a train is passing on a two-way street or closing the crossing permanently.
Barrett said medians or four-quadrant gates could be possible solutions, but Fanning Drive and Steves Boulevard do not have enough space for the 100-foot median as required by the Federal Railroad Administration. The two crossings have 60 feet that could accommodate a median, but that mechanism would need to be researched before the city can be sure it’s feasible.
If a median were constructed, it would cost between $100,000 and $300,000 per crossing, he said.
A four-quadrant gate system would cost between $600,000 and $800,000 per crossing, Barrett said, but it would not have to meet the space requirement that the median would need.
At the meeting, the council directed the city staff to try lowering the volume on the horns to the minimum requirement of 92 decibels. They also asked staff to test whether another horn sound available in their system would be less offensive to neighbors or if it is possible to blare the horn for a shorter length of time. The council also asked that the horns be placed closer to the ground so the sound does not spread as far.
After the testing, city staff is to report back to the council whether the changes make a difference. If the changes are not enough, the council will consider other options, such as what it would take to construct a median or a four-quadrant gate.
One funding mechanism mentioned at the meeting was the city’s transportation tax, which is scheduled to sunset in 2020, but the city has created a commission to recommend a ballot question to renew the tax this year.
Councilman Charlie Odegaard said during his campaign for city council he heard many east side residents complain about the horns, and he wanted to give the issue “some serious attention.”
“If the changes we mentioned don’t work, then I want to move on to other options,” Odegaard said.
Councilwoman Celia Barotz said the council should take action if none of the immediate fixes work.
“It’s possible that this will cost a lot of money, but I don’t see how we could not do it,” she said.
Flagstaff’s second latest first snowfall on record arrived with a bang Tuesday night, as rain and wind gusts up to 40 mph lashed the region before turning to snow by midnight.
Icy roads caused a two-hour delay in the Flagstaff and Williams unified school districts and the closure of I-40 at Ash Fork Hill for several hours.
I-40 reopened Wednesday morning, and Trooper Kameron Lee of the state Department of Public Safety says heavy rain apparently was a contributing factor to a five-vehicle collision involving fatalities and additional injuries on southbound Interstate 17 at State Route 169 Tuesday evening.
DPS also reported multiple non-injury accidents and slide-offs in the Flagstaff area.
I-17 was reopened shortly after 5 a.m., according to ADOT.
The National Weather Service says the heaviest snowfall occurred across the western Mogollon Rim from Flagstaff to Williams, where amounts of 3 to 6 inches are being reported. Snow was reported down to near 5,000 feet in Prescott and the higher reaches of Sedona. Officially, Flagstaff received 4.7 inches of snow at Pulliam Airport. The latest first snow on record occurred on Jan. 15, 2006.
Arizona Snowbowl reported receiving up to 14 inches of new snow and Arizona Nordic Village, at 8,000 feet, received 5 inches of snow and opened at noon for limited cross country skiing.
A quick rebound to dry and warmer weather will arrive Thursday and last into early next week while high pressure again dominates the forecast. Daytime temperatures will climb to at least 10 degrees above average. There is no sign of additional precipitation until perhaps Tuesday of next week.
The shooting and killing of a man in a Walmart parking by Flagstaff police last year was deemed justified by the Navajo County Attorney’s Office on Wednesday.
The office stated that the actions of officers William Condon, Dustin Hemp and Ryan Sherf were justified when they shot and killed Sean Brady after he fired his weapon at them multiple times while the officers were responding to reports of Brady brandishing a weapon.
The 11-page document submitted by the county attorney’s office states that “while the actions of officers, Condon, Sherf and Hemp resulted in the death of Sean Brady, their actions were legally justified under Arizona law. Furthermore their actions were justified under Graham and Clary. Therefore no criminal violation was committed by any officer involved in this incident.”
The case was delegated to Navajo County to avoid a conflict of interest in Coconino County.
Arizona Revised Statute states that an officer may use deadly force when circumstances create a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.
Flagstaff Police spokesman Sgt. Cory Runge said in October that the dispute stemmed from an argument about Brady playing loud music in the parking lot when people who were sleeping there asked him to turn down the volume. Brady refused and pulled out his gun.
When officers arrived, Brady was inside his truck. Officers asked Brady to show his hands and exit the truck. At that point, Brady pulled out a handgun and fired at one of the officers, missing him, Runge said.
Body camera footage from one of the officers shows the officer asking Brady to turn off his vehicle several times before Brady fires at officers.
The officer and two backup officers returned fire multiple times each, Runge said. The truck rolled forward and collided with a light pole, Runge said. Officers formed a perimeter around the truck until the SWAT team could arrive to approach the vehicle safely.
Brady was removed from the truck and pronounced dead on the scene.
In the vehicle, officers found two rifles, a handgun, boxes of ammunition and several used casings, Runge said.
Munds Park residents Vanessa and Martin Zeigler aren’t huge energy users and try to conserve wherever they can. They know they can usually expect an electric bill from APS to come in between $110 and $120 around this time of year, so when their December bill was $190, Martin Zeigler immediately called the utility to see what was going on.
Over the past three months, in fact, the Zeiglers’ energy bills have been 55 percent to 88 percent higher than the same months last year, even though their energy usage was, on average, just 7 percent higher.
APS customers across Arizona are seeing their electricity bills rise as the state’s largest utility rolls out a new rate structure, including a rate increase, approved by regulators in August. It will bring in $95 million per year in additional revenue for the utility company. Customers are also being required to choose a new rate plan as the utility phases out existing plans by this May.
But some people, including the Zeiglers, are seeing monthly bill increases well above the 4.5 percent or $6-per-month average for residential customers that APS projected in its rate filing. More than 400 people signed onto a formal complaint, filed last week, requesting the Arizona Corporation Commission rehear the utility’s rate case.
“This rate increase has hurt people and families who are now being forced to make the choice of paying an exorbitant electric bill or buying groceries,” petition circulator Stacey Champion wrote in a cover letter with the petition.
APS was given 20 days to respond and then the commission will have a hearing to consider the complaint.
But the effects of the utility’s August rate case aren’t the only changes APS customers will see to their electricity charges in the coming months.
On Tuesday, APS announced it would seek a $119 million reduction in customers’ bills — about $4.68 per customer, on average — in response to corporate tax cuts approved by Congress in December. The tax-related adjustment was a new component of APS’ most recent rate case and provides for income tax effects to be passed on to customers, with the amount recalculated each year.
The savings will be portioned out on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, so the average customer using 1,100 kilowatt hours per month would save $4.68 on each bill, with higher users saving more and lower users saving less. In a press release, the utility stated that it anticipates additional tax cut savings in the future, “once the full impact of the new law is realized.”
The reduction needs approval by state regulators before it can go into effect.
On a parallel track, APS plans to ask those same regulators, the Arizona Corporation Commission, to approve another $70 million revenue increase to cover the cost of pollution controls installed on the Four Corners Power Plant this year and last year. The pollution control devices, which reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, were a requirement of a 2015 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups to comply with regional haze regulations.
Installation costs of the pollution controls are split among the owners, and APS owns and operates 63 percent of the Four Corners Power Plant, located near Farmington, New Mexico.
To recoup what it expects to be nearly $400 million in capital costs on the project, the company is requesting a 2 percent rate increase. That works out to about $3 per month for the average energy user, spokeswoman Anna Stewart wrote in an email.
Customers’ energy bills would reflect whatever rate change is approved by the commission before January of next year.
When Martin Zeigler called APS, he learned about the rate change and chose a new plan that he hopes will bring his family’s bill back down.
“I'm curious about what the next bill will look like,” he said.
As of Oct. 31, which is the most recent data APS provided, just 6 percent of customers have picked a new rate plan. APS did not release information on what types of plans customers are choosing.
Once they choose a new plan or are automatically transitioned to a new plan, customers can make a plan switch once more within a year, Stewart wrote.
“We encourage customers to stay on the service plan for at least a year to realize the full benefits of the plan through all seasons,” she wrote.
Since APS' new rate went into effect, the Arizona Corporation Commission has received a steady stream of complaints from customers saying their bills have risen much more than the average that was publicized. Among them was a Show Low customer who saw a 48 percent increase in her December bill, despite the same energy usage, and a Scottsdale man who saw his bill nearly triple over the same time the year before.
In an emailed response to questions about why customers were seeing a spike in their bills of much more than $6 per month, Stewart wrote that number is the average over 12 months so bill impacts could be different based on the season.
Higher or lower-than-average temperatures or changes to consumption behavior will also impact what people are charged, Stewart wrote.
Other APS officials have said that once people switch to new plans and adjust their habits to avoid new peak pricing hours and demand rates they could see a decrease in their electricity costs.
The company did not respond to a request for any data it has collected on changes to customer bills or the average increase to its customers' bills since the rate increase went into effect.
Update: Officials with the Residential Utility Customer Office took a closer look at the Zeiglers' APS bills and found that the family was receiving a specific discount that they aren't this year. After taking that discount out of the equation, the increase in the family's electricity bill between last year and this year works out to an average of 5 percent to 7 percent, said Jordy Fuentes, RUCO's deputy director.