Selectmen this week pledged to craft a strategic response to the prospect of a long-term expansion in rail traffic through Foxboro that includes installing gates at the town’s eight grade crossings.
However, board members stopped short of embracing a related proposal to designate all or parts of town as a “quiet zone,” exempting trains from sounding their whistles when approaching grade crossings.
The action came on the heels of a lengthy presentation by County Street residents Donald DiMauro and Todd Hassett, longtime critics of freight operations who chronicled a checkered history involving CSX, which operates trains on rail lines owned by the state Dept. of Transportation.
Hassett said townspeople have been subjected to slow-moving freight trains blocking grade crossings for extended periods, blaring train whistles in the nighttime hours and a series of fires that ignited refuse in open train cars, resulting in half-burned trash strewn about the area between the Spring Street and Elm Street crossings.
While acknowledging that conditions have improved under pressure from both local and state officials, Hassett suggested recent improvements to the freight line through Foxboro foreshadow an increase in both the frequency and scope of future rail traffic.
These developments — unrelated to an MBTA pilot program beginning this fall which will initiate weekday commuter rail service from Gillette Stadium to Boston — require a stepped-up local response to protect public safety, he added, particularly as it relates to grade crossings.
“We feel the community has inadequate infrastructure around our crossings,” Hassett said.
Questioned by Selectman David Feldman, Hassett estimated the cost of installing gates at roughly $120,000 per grade crossing — for a total cost of $1 million. The town would be solely responsible for these costs, although it’s possible that grants or other discretionary funding come become available.
State Rep. Jay Barrows, who has assisted local officials in past efforts to resolve rail issues, said state transportation officials have had their hands full with a string of high-profile mass transit and highway-related headaches.
“They’re under siege,” he said. “You can pick up the paper any day of the week and see the latest calamity.”
Nonetheless, Barrows promised to explore funding options if townspeople support gated crossings. Noting that freight traffic is federally regulated, Barrows also suggested federal funding may be available to help offset costs.
The installation of gates is unrelated to an ongoing program of rebuilding grade crossings across town. To date, MassDOT has reconstructed crossings at Spring, North and Leonard streets. Several others in line for rebuilds, including Mechanic and Cocasset, were temporarily sidetracked by other spending priorities.
Installing gates and making related improvements to local grade crossings would presumably pave the way for Foxboro to apply for an exemption to Federal Railroad Administration rules requiring trains to sound their horns when approaching grade crossings.
Hassett said 29 Bay State communities have received such a “quiet zone” exemption.
“We really think this would improve the quality of life for residents,” he said.
While supporting efforts to install gated grade crossings, Town Manager William Keegan cautioned about liability issues that could arise from pursuing a quite zone policy in Foxboro.
“It’s my obligation as town manager to warn you of these challenges,” Keegan said.
Though no formal votes were taken, board members endorsed Keegan’s suggestion to establish a subcommittee to help develop a strategic response to future rail issues.
“Gates first, with quiet zone on the back burner,” Chairman Mark Elfman concluded.