by Dennis Dalman
Grassroots activism by three local women led directly to a new railroad “Quiet Zone” where County Road 55 meets Benton Drive, north of Sartell.
The women, however, have to first raise $5,000 and are launching a fundraising campaign this week with a letter-mailing to area residents. The $5,000 will unlock a matching grant for the project from Sauk Rapids Township.
A quiet zone is a railroad crossing at which trains are not allowed to blow their whistles while approaching that crossing.
The CR 55 crossing could become “quiet” as soon as Aug. 1, thanks to the women’s efforts. CR 55 is located about a half mile north of the defunct Sartell paper-mill site, just to the west of Benton Drive.
The three women are Laurie Bloom and Ann Popp of Sauk Rapids Township and Janet Tilstra of Sartell. Bloom and Popp live on the east side of Benton Drive, not too far from the CR 55 crossing. All three women gave a progress update on their work at the June 8 Sartell City Council meeting.
It was Popp who raised questions about the possibility of a quiet zone in 2007 after she read a quite-zone study. At that time, a quiet zone would have cost about $600,000 at CR 55 – prohibitively expensive.
It wasn’t until October of last year that Bloom and Popp began their effort in earnest. They decided to get on track full steam ahead when Bloom was sitting outdoors with neighbors one October day. As they socialized, they heard shrill train whistles one after another. Everyone at the outdoor gathering agreed it would be nice to have a quiet zone.
Popp and Bloom drew up a list of contacts, started making calls and visits and then knocked on door after door (during election season, no less), meeting residents and handing them a letter about a quite-zone proposal. The letter also requested residents to attend a meeting Nov. 4 at Sauk Rapids Townhall. The turnout astonished the women. There were more than 150 people who showed up, cramming into the tiny former one-room schoolhouse that serves as the townhall. Everyone there expressed strong support for a quiet zone. Tilstra of Sartell also decided to join the quiet-zone effort.
They found out it would cost about $63,000 to have that crossing designated as a quiet zone. One reason it is less expensive than years ago is because an expensive constant-warning circuit system has been installed, a system that warns oncoming trains electronically if a vehicle is on the tracks or other problems lurk ahead at a crossing. Quiet zones can only be allowed if many safety factors are in place.
One of the women’s meetings involved a talk with Sartell City Administrator Mary Degiovanni and Amy Braig-Lindstrom, Sartell city-council member. Those two suggested the women should contact Sauk Rapids Township to see if it would be willing to chip in funds for the project. The women then met with township officials, and even though the township has nothing directly to do with CR 55 or the rail crossing on it, it agreed to contribute $10,000, plus another $5,000 if the women and their supporters could raise a matching amount – $5,000.
The City of Sartell agreed to contribute $42,500 for contract work and engineering (money from the city’s street fund), and Dan Landwehr of Landwehr Construction chipped in $5,000.
The $63,000 cost of the project will include creating a cement roadway leading up to the tracks on both sides, pilings on the road to make the cement solid, curbwork and cement barriers to prevent vehicles from foolishly driving around the crossarms that are there now.
Before a quiet zone can be initiated, engineering work and other preliminary studies have to be finished, but Bloom said the project has definitely been given a green-light go-ahead by all entities involved.
In an interview with the Newsleader, Bloom said she lacks the words to express her gratitude and thanks to so many people and entities that were so helpful in the effort: the people who showed up at Sauk Rapids Townhall to offer support, Watab Township for sharing know-how about getting a quiet zone established, the City of Sartell, Sauk Rapids Township, Benton County, Dan Landwehr, “We were just overwhelmed by all the support we received,” Bloom said. “Everything just seemed to fall right into place.”
And, for the record, Bloom and the two other women are not anti-train. Not at all. But, as Bloom explained, she has lived east of the CR 55 crossing for 20 years. At first, there were only 20 or so trains per day on the tracks. That number kept increasing until the current number of trains in a 24-hour period is 100 or more. That adds up to a lot of shrill whistling. One medical doctor who lives in Bloom’s neighborhood wrote Bloom a letter stating the frequent train whistling prevented him from getting a sound and healthy sleep.
The Sartell City Council praised the women’s work.
“That (crossing) is a busy intersection,” said council member David Peterson, who lives in east Sartell not far from the crossing. “We should have safety first and foremost. We have to be sure that crossing is just as safe or safer than it is now.”
Sartell City Engineer Mike Nielson noted once construction work is done, vehicles will not be able to drive around the crossarms when a train is coming and even when a train is not coming.
Sartell Mayor Sarah Jane Nicoll, while in favor of the quiet zone, acknowledged she will miss the train whistles because of nostalgic reasons – that they remind her of her mother who liked train whistles and who passed away two years ago.
How to contribute
Anyone wanting to contribute to the $5,000 the three women must raise can write a check to “Sauk Rapids Township Treasurer,” putting “RR Quiet Zone” on the check’s memo line. Then send it to Sauk Rapids Township Treasurer, Quiet Zone, 4074 Fifth Ave. NE, Sauk Rapids, MN 56379.