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Quiet rail questioned

BISMARCK -- Some on a House committee are questioning a bill to grant cities some of the state's highway construction funds for special rail crossings that allow trains to go through towns without sounding their deafening air horns as they approach each crossing.

The House Finance and Tax Department heard Senate Bill 2338 Wednesday, the first day legislators were back following a five-day mid-session break.

Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, wondered if there needed to be state money for cities that want to put in the special crossings.

"Fargo went ahead and did it themselves," she said. Fargo's crossings, about a year old, cost more than $300,000 each, and are being paid for with special assessments on the surrounding properties.

Another committee member, Rep. Glen Froseth, R-Kenmare, asked if there aren't dangerous railroad crossings in rural areas, too.

As passed by the Senate earlier, the bill creates grant program using the 4-cents-per-gallon state diesel fuel taxes railroads pay into the state highway trust fund. The railroads are charged the tax even though they do not use the highways. It adds up to about $3.2 million per year, said Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, the bill sponsor.

Under the program, cities could receive up to $100,000 per crossing for up to five crossings, creating so-called quiet zones where trains can pass through without using their horns. The special crossings are designed so motorists can't get around the cross arms and also have special barriers that prevent pedestrians from walking across the tracks when a train is approaching or passing.

Bismarck and Jamestown voters turned down quiet zones last year because of the costs. Other cities exploring or seeking quiet zones include Mandan, Bismarck, Casselton and Medora. Fargo installed several quiet zone crossings

The League of Cities, Association of Counties and the North Dakota Farm Bureau oppose and testified against the bill Wednesday because they want the state's highway construction fund to be used only for roads.