San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

December 13th, 2010
San Marcos expects to begin railroad quiet zone project, finally, in 2011

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Railroad crossing near the intersection of Aquarena Springs Drive and Post Road. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

San Marcos residents may endure less train noise by the end of 2011. City officials say the change would positively affect property values and quality of life.

City staff expects to begin a first phase of a railroad quiet zone project by July 2011.

The project would involve the construction of safety improvements to railroad crossings. When those improvements are made, trains can legally blow their horns only when danger is noticed on the tracks, or when bells, gates or lights are not nonfunctional.

Trains are currently required to blow their horns 15 to 20 seconds before crossing all city roads. The federal government will not allow railroad quiet zones until safety measures at rail crossings are enhanced.

There are 33 railroad crossings in the city limits and extraterritorial jurisdiction, according to Wade Benton of HNTB, a city consultant. Current plans are for 21 railroad crossings to become quiet zones, though the city may include more now being analyzed for cost estimate purposes only. Last July, city staff supported creating quiet zones at every railroad crossing. City staff has estimated that implementation of quiet zones at all crossings may cost $4.5 million.

“Currently, we are working to complete phase I within the $600,000 funding (from the city),” said Kristy Stark, public information specialist on capital improvements projects for the City of San Marcos.

Phase 1 of the railroad quiet zone project will involve making safety improvements to the tracks between the Patton Street and Riverside Drive rail crossings. Improving the Patton and Riverside crossings would involve roadway improvements, utility relocations, property acquisitions, design fees and agreements between the city and Union Pacific Railroad, Stark said.

At a city council meeting on July 6, then-San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz said the city set aside $700,000 about four years ago to implement quiet zones.

“Part of our challenge is that we started talking about this long before New Braunfels, and somehow they could get it done,” Narvaiz said to staff at the meeting.

At that same meeting, Councilmember Kim Porterfield said New Braunfels has 38 crossings and expects to complete its railroad quiet zone project in five years.

Narvaiz asked city staff how much money had been spent of the $700,000 already allocated. City of San Marcos’ then-Capital Improvements Projects Director David Healey said approximately $30,000 had been spent as of July 6.

So far, the city has taken traffic counts, inventoried all railroad crossings, and made preliminary estimates regarding the proposed first phase, Stark said.

San Marcos Assistant City Manager Laurie Moyer said staff intended to implement quiet zones only where it would be easiest to do so. However, after discussions with various citizen stakeholders groups, city staff determined it would be best to implement quiet zones in the entire city.

“City staff has made several attempts to move this project forward,” Moyer said. “But I’ve heard consistently now that while there are areas in the city that would be very easy to implement, those are not areas where everyone lives.”

Healey said city staff began looking at the feasibility of a limited number of quiet zones “in approximately 2006 and 2007.” Healey said Kimley-Horn and Associates began identifying priority railroad crossings in 2008 and 2009.

At the July 6 meeting, then-Councilmember John Thomaides said he thought $700,000 had been allocated for crossings surrounded by neighborhoods.

Moyer responded that implementing the quiet zones at rail crossings surrounded by neighborhoods with current funding would not result in contiguous quiet zones. Moyer said Union Pacific would be uncooperative with implementing non-contiguous quiet zones, which, she said, would include rail crossings in the Rio Vista and Victory Gardens neighborhoods.

“It has to be a long enough stretch,” Moyer said. “So, that’s the challenge.”

Stark said engineering firm Kimley-Horn and Associates is determining the cost of making improvements to the 21 crossings planned so far as quiet zones.

If the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approves the city’s application to establish quiet zones, the improvements must also be authorized by the city council, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and/or Union Pacific Railroad, Stark said.

“The application to FRA has not yet been sent and the entities have their own time frames and are making no guarantees as to approval time,” Stark said. “We will meet with FRA to request a typical review time from them.”

Before construction, the project would have to go through the city’s construction bid process and the council would have to approve the contracts.

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34 thoughts on “San Marcos expects to begin railroad quiet zone project, finally, in 2011

  1. Awesome. I hope they stick with the plan outlined above, to hit Riverside to Patton first. There are a lot of homes (many not so well insulated) sitting right on top of the tracks along that stretch. Those residents will get some serious relief from this effort.

  2. Just because there is a quiet zone doesn’t mean the train HAS to be quiet. They are legally allowed to remain quiet, but are also legally allowed to blow their horns. This is not the remedial fix people are hoping to quiet trains. As a major railfan and locomotive enthusiast I have seen many “quiet zones” implemented across the country that just aren;t that quiet. This will allow them to refrain from blowing their horns, but doesn’t mandate that they keep silent. It’s all up to the discretion of the engineer, and honestly, if I was an engineer, I’d blow my horn through the whole damn town- because once they have “quiet” zones, people will forget about train safety (what about people walking near the tracks?). These mitigation devices aren’t fool proof- ask the city how many times ANNUALLY they have to call UPac for a malfunctioning RR signal. I personally know that malfunctions happens multiple times a month (especially Hopkins @ HEB and Aquarena @ The Stadium).

    Don’t think this is going to keep trains quiet… it won’t. It’s just a feel-good, vote-for-me measure by the City Council.

  3. The idea that the trains will still be blowing their horns regularly (or semi-regularly) seems to contradict the UP website and the Federal Railroad Association. Cities have been upgrading crossings (at significant expense) to create quiet zones for years now. If the trains were still blowing horns with any regularity, it would seem fairly easy to find news stories, editorials, meeting minutes, or something, where people are up in arms over the money wasted. I can’t find anything like that.

    Can you point me to something that shows that trains are not going to stop (or significantly reduce) their horn blowing?

  4. And why should my tax money go to pay for quiet zones? The railroad was here LONG before those homes were built and the folks that bought or live in the homes knew that they were moving right next to the tracks. Kinda like people who buy houses near and airport and then bitch about the airplane noise. No one forced them to live there.

  5. I like the lonesome cry of the trains horn. It is a romantic soothing sound.
    Let them blow!

    Also, I agree with Eric

  6. Eric- The number of trains passing through San Marcos has increased. The data I found is 8 years old and has over 34 freight trains passing through San Marcos daily. I can’t even imagine what the numbers look like today. That’s what, a train every 45 minutes. So, you wait maybe 10-30 minutes for a train to go by, then 20 minutes later comes another? I’m sure it wasn’t like that (or imaginable) back when people bought their homes.

    If Las Fonatans is correct though, then I agree- don’t spend the money.

    “involve roadway improvements, utility relocations, property acquisitions, design fees and agreements between the city and Union Pacific Railroad” sounds vague and why should it cost money to make an agreement w/the railroad?

  7. Eric, I guess it is for the same reason that homeowners can have their property values destroyed by developers who want to build apartments and commercial property on land that was zoned for residential, LONG before they bought it. No one forced them to build there.

    Except, in this case, it is many families with VERY few other housing options at the time that they bought those homes.

    Better the money goes to help them, than a multi-billion dollar Canadian developer. This money is a drop in the bucket, compared to ridiculous incentives given to countless apartments and retailers and, in fact, the increased taxes that we *should* have collected from those developments could have covered this, and MANY more improvements to the city.

    So, I guess we get to pay for it, because the big developers and retailers don’t have to pay their fair share.

  8. Let’s get it going! I’m tired of the 3am wake-up calls. I have always said that when I move out of San Marcos trains will be near the top of the list of reasons why. While we’re at it we need to reroute Uhland Rd to maximize traffic relief and buy all the property around the Patton crossing (or relocate it) to best exploit that crossing. Look at what New Braunfels is doing with Walnut Street. We need acknowledge that trains are a HUGE liability for this town and start conceiving improvement plans that match the scale of the problem.

  9. Bob, interesting ideas. I commented to my wife the other day, that closing the Patton crossings (which I think may count as two at-grade crossings) might be a good idea, as it would eliminate some cut-through traffic and I believe UP will *pay* us to eliminate at-grade crossings.

    Unfortunately, that would effectively cut that neighborhood in half. Still, it might not be a bad idea.

  10. I say move the Patton crossing to Weatherford, extend Weatherford to Hunter to serve the new county building and bridge Purgatory Creek with an elevated road along the creek parallel to Gravel, tie to Valley, then to Fredericksburg to feed downtown. (A version of a road proposed in a long ago transportation plan). I feel strongly that we will be looking for ways to relieve traffic on Wonder World in the not-too-distant future and this plan would help us with that.

    I cannot advocate closing any RR crossings except as a bargaining chip in part of an overall transportation improvement plan. Those crossings have a value greater than money.

  11. I live right across the street from the tracks and I definetely knew what I was getting myself into when I purchased the home. I have always found it interesting, sadly, how people get so riled up about the noise of the trains, then they turn up their television or air conditioner to drown out the noise. Of course only leading to the demand for more coal to be mined and brought to Texas via train. All of the effort put into trying to ignore, including overpasses and quiet zones, our ongoing appetite for destruction only steers us away from ever solving the real issue. Put down your hacksaws and pick up a shovel.

  12. This is a great thing for the city. I personally know people who won’t move to San Marcos because of the train horns blowing all day, all night. Long-time residents probably don’t even hear it anymore (after nearly five years, I really don’t either). But believe me, if you’re new to town and looking at properties, it makes an impact. And not a good one at that.

    The truth is that for those homebuyers who can live where they want, the train noise automatically eliminates huge swaths of San Marcos from their list of possible neighborhoods. And this is true not just for homes directly near the tracks, but for those quite far away. It makes much — perhaps most — of San Marcos a non-starter.

    This will improve property values and quality of life here in town. And perhaps once the trains ease off on the horns, it will help increase the proportion of owner-occupied properties in town. That, too, will raise property values.

    Jump on it, San Marcos!

  13. Really… I mean REALLY, do this many people find the sound of trains offensive? I have lived here for 7 years and when I purchased my home I knew about the train “situation”. In fact as I was viewing my potential home, a train came by blowing it’s horn and I thought it added to the charm of this town. Granted, I am not right next to the tracks but I can clearly hear both the horn and the rumbling of the train as it passes through town. Speaking of the rumbling, why don’t we spend more money to cushion the tracks to reduce that noise too?

  14. In 2006 we were told the quiet zones would cost $700K. In 2010 we were told they would cost $4 million. I suspect the accurate amount is somewhere closer to the 2010 numbers and that was for the whole city. I really want to go to a city that has them and see how they work.

  15. A huge step would be for the engineer to use the proper proceedure for blowing the horn. Horns are signaling devices and there is a code for the sequence; as I remember it, 2 shorts and a long for a crossing.

  16. Again, I’m used to it, though sometimes I’ve been on conference calls and clients on the other end of the line ask, “What is that NOISE?” They think I must office directly next to the tracks, but I don’t. Not nearly.

  17. Hi Jake,

    Yes, in fact the noise of the trains is not simply “offensive” but downright unhealthy. I moved here in 2007, into a home about 1/2 mile from series of downtown intersections. Depending on the habits of a train’s conductor, this sometimes means the horn is blaring for almost half a minute straight as the train passes through town. Given the right environmental conditions, it is almost as loud at my house as being next to the tracks.

    During my first year in SM, I was severely sleep deprived and depressed due to the seemingly constant night traffic. Sometimes I would be woken up 4-5 times an night by train horns blaring! It got so bad that when I heard a train horn, my heart would start racing. Very, very unpleasant. Do some research into the negative impacts of environmental noise on health. You might be surprised at how serious an issue this can be.

    It wasn’t until we replaced ALL the windows in our house that I finally had some relief. Even now we can never sleep with windows open, or think of having a back yard camp out with the kiddo.

    We chose to live in town because we believe very strongly in living where we work, to minimize commuting and to be members of the community….but given the opportunity to do it over again, the trains might be a deal breaker. I hope the project is successful!

  18. I think we need to get a cost estimate for relocating the tracks to an unpopulated area before we spend this money. The noise of the trains is annoying for some and nerve-wracking for others (never bothered me in my 9 years on Haynes St) but there is a huge potential for disaster if one of those trains were to derail. Some of those cars are carrying sulfuric acid, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide. A spill could be deadly and not just for the folks living close enough to the tracks to be bothered by the noise.

  19. Do what you want as long as you leave Patton street open. Without Patton street how would I get to the Dairy Queen?

  20. There are folks out there studying relocation of the tracks for freight, but passenger trains will continue to use the existing tracks. IF they ever relocate the freight trains it will be a LONG time from now. We need to jump on the quiet zone project like a pit bull and get it DONE. All crossings, full-force, both barrels and cut no corners.

  21. The first night I spent in my apartment at Stone Brook on Dec. 15, 2001, I heard every train, and my first thought was that I had made a terrible mistake in moving here. But as others have said, I hardly notice the trains now, but if a city as disfunctional as San Antonio can manage several districtwide quiet zones, one near downtown, then surely San Marcos should already have accomplished toning down trains traveling through the city from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Hopefully, the council will aggressively pursue this.

  22. Pingback: QUOTE CORNER - San Marcos Local News

  23. The horns in San Marcos are OUT OF CONTROL! My wife and I just moved into a new neigborhood off od Hwy 21. The Blanco River is here, and its quite nice. Unfortunately the devoloper (Bigelow Homes) did not mention the God-awful trains that lean on their hrns at all hours of the day and night. I dont understand what the enguneer must do this. The arms work, and close over the highway fine yet the conductor, almost purposefully, LEANS on the horn, knowing that there is a new neigborhood here!! It drives me nuts, and I will be spreading the word that the trains in San Marcos are horrible. Other than the train noise, I’m fine as everything else is fine… crime is low, rivers abound, parks everywhere… BUT THESE TRAINS WITH THEIR HORNS!!! JUST AWFUL!!!!
    I really hope these quiet zones pass, and as for the tax issue, I would gladly pay extra to ease the noise through the city and outskirts (Hwy 21 crossing)….

  24. Makes me wonder why our train conductors dont need to obide by this!!
    AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF SAN MARCOS, TEXAS AMENDING THE SAN MARCOS CITY CODE SECTION 34.701 TO DEFINE THE TERMS EXCESSIVE NOISE AND UNRULY GATHERING; AMENDING SECTION 34.702 TO PROHIBIT PARTY HOSTS OR GUESTS FROM CAUSING EXCESSIVE NOISE, OBSTRUCTING STREETS OR DRIVEWAYS, ENGAGING IN OR ALLOWING ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE LAW VIOLATIONS OR PARTICIPATING IN OR ALLOWING AN UNRULY GATHERING; PROHIBITING OWNERS AND MANAGERS OF APARTMENT COMPLEXES FROM ALLOWING COMMON AREAS TO BE USED AS VENUES FOR UNRULY GATHERINGS; PROVIDING FOR NOTIFICATION OF PROPERTY OWNERS AND MANAGERS AFTER TWO (2) VERIFIED EXCESSIVE NOISE COMPLAINTS, HOST OR GUEST RESPONSIBILITY VIOLATIONS, OR UNRULY GATHERINGS HAVE OCCURRED WITHIN A SIXTY (60) DAY PERIOD; PROVIDING FOR AGREEMENTS CONCERNING FUTURE ABATEMENT STRATEGIES; AUTHORIZING A FEE OF $100 FOR EACH POLICE RESPONSE FOR REPEATED VIOLATIONS; REPEALING SECTIONS 34.090 THROUGH 34.096 OF THE SAN MARCOS CITY CODE; PROVIDING FOR PENALTIES; INCLUDING PROCEDURAL PROVISIONS AND DECLARING AN EFFECTIVE DATE.

    BE IT ORDAINED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF SAN MARCOS, TEXAS:

    SECTION 1. Section 34.088 of the San Marcos City Code is hereby amended to read as follows: (deletions are shown with strikethroughs, additions are underlined)

    “Sec. 34.088 Nuisance Excessive NoiseViolations; penalties

    a. It is unlawful for a person who owns, occupies or acts as a property manager for a residence or is present at any residence to allow the residence to become or to remain a nuisance due to excessive noise cause, make, or allow excessive noise to be made there if it can be heard across property lines or enters another residence. A determination that noise is excessive may be based upon, but need not be limited to, a consideration of any of the following factors: the time of day; the size of any gathering of persons making or contributing to the noise; the use of noise amplification equipment; the magnitude or disruptive effect of the noise; the duration of the noise; or whether the noise would tend to cause distress, discomfort, annoyance, or injury to a person of ordinary sensibility. Sources of excessive noise may include but are not limited to live or recorded human voices or sounds produced by radio, stereo, television, musical instruments or other devices.”

    b. An excessive noise violation shall be punished, upon conviction, by a fine not to exceed $500 as provided in Section 1.015(b) of the San Marcos City Code.”
    SECTION 2. Chapter 34, Article 6, Host Responsibilities For Parties In Residential Areas, Section 34.701, Definitions, of the San Marcos City Code is hereby amended to modify and add definitions as follows: (deletions are shown with strikethroughs, additions are underlined)

    Apartment complex means a multi-family development containing one or more buildings that have at least four dwelling units.

    Excessive noise means noise that can be heard across property lines or enters a residence other than the residence from which the noise originated. A determination that noise is excessive may be based upon, but need not be limited to, a consideration of any of the following factors: the time of day; the size of any gathering of persons making or contributing to the noise; the use of noise amplification equipment; the magnitude or disruptive effect of the noise; the duration of the noise; or whether the noise would tend to cause distress, discomfort, annoyance, or injury to a person of ordinary sensibility. Sources of excessive noise may include but are not limited to live or recorded human voices or sounds produced by radio, stereo, television, musical instruments or other devices.”

    Guest means any person who attends a party other than the host, whether invited or not.

    Unruly gathering means a gathering of more than one person which is conducted on premises within the city and which, by reason of the conduct of those persons in attendance, results in the occurrence of more than one of the following conditions or events on public or private property; rioting; the unlawful sale, furnishing, possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages; the destruction of property; obstruction of roadways, driveways, or public ways by crowds or vehicles; excessive noise; disturbances, brawls, fights, or quarrels; public urination or defecation; or indecent or obscene conduct or exposure.

    ECTION 3. Section 34.702, Host Responsiblities For Parties In Residential Areas, of the San Marcos City Code is hereby amended to read as follows: (deletions are shown with strikethroughs, additions are underlined)

    “Sec. 34.702. Responsibilities of hosts, guests, owners or managers of common areas at apartment complexes.

    (a) It is unlawful for a host to fail:
    (1) To ensure that excessive noise is not produced from the host’s party. does not reach an unlawful level.
    (2) To ensure that any alcoholic beverages provided or served at the host’s party are controlled in a manner that ensures the alcoholic beverage laws are not violated;
    (3) To advise his guests that streets and driveways cannot be blocked by vehicles of persons attending the host’s party;
    (4) To ensure that litter related to the host’s party is properly disposed of by 10:00 a.m. of the day morning after the party started; or
    (5) To prevent the party from becoming an unruly gathering.

    (b) It is unlawful for a guest attending a party to engage in conduct that results in one or more of the following conditions or events on public or private property: rioting; the unlawful sale, furnishing, possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages; the destruction of property; obstruction of roadways, driveways, or public ways by crowds or vehicles; excessive noise; disturbances, brawls,
    fights, or quarrels; public urination or defecation; or indecent or obscene conduct or exposure.

    (c) It is unlawful for the owner or manager of an apartment complex to allow an unruly gathering to occur in a common area.”

    (d) It is not a defense to prosecution for violations of any law or ordinance that a security officer or officers who were hired for a party failed to properly fulfill the host’s duties in subsection (a) of this section.

    (e) It is prima facie evidence that the host violated subsection (a)(1) if the police warn the host that vehicles of persons attending the host’s party are blocking streets and driveways and that these vehicles need to be moved, and the vehicles are not moved within a reasonable time.

    (f) If a police officer determines that a party has become an unruly gathering, the officer may order all persons not residing at the site of the party to leave immediately. Any person who fails or refuses to abide by such an order commits an offense.

    (h) A violation of any provision of subsection (a), (b), (c) or (f) of this section shall be punished, upon conviction, by a fine not to exceed $500.00 as provided by Section 1.015(b) of the San Marcos City Code.

    SECTION 4. Section 34.089 of the San Marcos City Code is amended to read as follows: (deletions are shown with strikethroughs, additions are underlined)

    Sec. 34.089 Notification of property owners; abatement strategies; remedies
    (a)If a property owner or manager registers his property with the police department, then The police department will may notify the property owner or property manager, by e-mail, in writing of if two verified excessive noise complaints, host or guest responsibility violations, or unruly gathering violations that occur on the registered property within a sixty (60) day period. Registration information must be submitted on forms provided by the police department.

    (b) After notification under subsection (a), the property owner, property owner’s designee or the property manager shall contact the police department within ten (10) days of the date of the notice in order to reach agreement on strategies to prevent further violations from occurring on the property which may include education, mediation, enforcement of lease violations against tenants, refusal to renew the lease of particular tenants or eviction. If an agreement is reached, the matter will be deemed resolved unless there is another verified excessive noise complaint, host or guest responsibility violation, or unruly gathering within 90 days of the most recent complaint or violation. If an agreement includes non-renewal of the lease or eviction, there will be no charge for police responses to the property if the lease termination or eviction occurs within 60 days of the date of the execution of the agreement. If an agreement is not reached or if another verified excessive noise complaint, host or guest responsibility violation,
    or unruly gathering occurs within 90 days of the most recent complaint or violation, then the property owner or property manager may be assessed a fee of $100 for each of the two prior police responses and each subsequent
    police response to the property for such verified complaints and violations within six months from the date of last verified complaint or violation

    SECTION 5. Sections 34.090 – 34.096 of the San Marcos City Code are hereby repealed. Section 34.097, Suspension of Electric Service, shall be renumbered as Section 34.090.

    SECTION 6. If any word, phrase, clause, sentence, or paragraph of this ordinance is held to be unconstitutional or invalid by a court of competent jurisdiction, the other provisions of this ordinance will continue in force if they can
    be given effect without the invalid portion.

    SECTION 7. All ordinances and resolution or parts of ordinances or resolutions in conflict with this ordinance are repealed.

    SECTION 8. This ordinance shall become effective upon publication of its caption following adoption on second reading.

  25. John, I don’t know whether it is a state or federal law — probably the latter — requiring engineers to sound the horn four times at each railroad crossing which would supercede any city ordinance. However, it seems the engineers coming through San Marcos have a tendency to sit on the horns from the time they enter the city limits until they exit the city.

  26. Trains are regulated by the Feds because they are involved in interstate commerce. Cities and states can’t make laws that interfere with interstate commerce. So you need to take this up with your elected officials in Washington DC.

  27. Even if you had irrefutable proof UP was in violation who would you call? Ain’t nobody going to go up against ’em. There’s no upside. We have to do what we can which is build these quiet zones.

  28. Hey John, Kenny P is right.

    Most cities have an ordinance similiar to the one San Marcos has adopted. It’s on the books to protect citizens “quality of life” but the real reason is cities do this for revenue and nothing more. If the railroad line has broken the ordinance they can get fined. Believe it or not, when fined they do pay up. The problem is most cities don’t and won’t enforce their own laws. As far as the noise not much you do about it but complain to the city council until they have the law enforced.

  29. A horn is fine, it is the seemingly purposely excessive blaring of the horns (it seems mainly late at night) that bother me. I think between the fines and the increased property values (hence increased taxes) the city can recoup a majority of the money needed to fund this project over the long haul. Also what are legalities of trains constantly stopping on the Patton crossing. I have read online (yes I know you can’t trust everything you read) that this is possibly illegal,if it is why not collect fines for this and put it in the pot? Lastly, I would rather them put the money toward rerouting the freight trains like they were supposed to by 2012 and then we can just deal with the company running the train from San Antonio to Austin and Amtrak…Just an idea, maybe ignorant, but an idea?

  30. Oh and side note….we could of used the money these people handed out in tax incentives to the now foreclosed on Target and JCPenny strip mall!!!

  31. It’s only posted, hassn’t been foreclosed yet. I doubt they will actualy foreclose, either a deal will be cut or bankruptcy filed to stay the foreclosure.

  32. I agree with everyone who say’s the trains are nostalgic, and romantic. The horns are not
    the problem. What I think is unlawful is the trains blocking roads for up to two hours.
    I think the quiet zones are a way to line the pockets of those who will be developing and
    implementing the quiet plans. Maybe some pay raises some who want this to go through,
    while the rest of us who work for 8.00 an hour are late to work waiting for the train to pass.

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