RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin opened the meeting by talking about how a quiet zone is one of many tools that can be used to draw people to the river. While greenways and riverfront parks have already been established to make the area more attractive, she said, it's considerably more difficult to move forward with development when train blasts pervade the area. Furthermore, Cragnolin said, the opportunity to build affordable housing in the River District would be lost without a quiet zone, because the noise pollution plaguing the area would bar developers from receiving the federal subsidies needed for affordable units.
But Tom Drake of the Federal Railroad Administration, who had traveled from Atlanta to speak, made it clear that the FRA isn't crazy about quiet zones. "We permit quiet zones," he said. "We don't promote them. Quiet zones are unproven in most of the country. And [the railroads] are worried about liability." He also noted that the FRA could only approve a quiet zone once new safety measures are established at traffic crossings. Those supplemental safety measures would need to be locally funded, he said.
Micah Downing, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and specializes in noise control, gave a detailed presentation using charts and graphs to show how noise pollution is linked with sleep disturbance, conversational interference and even an increased level of annoyance. He showed a brief animated film of a train going through Biltmore Village, with an illustration of the train blast coinciding with a color-coded decibel chart. "Noise can be such an environmental pollutant that it decreases your quality of life," he said.
Ed Harris, who heads up Ed Harris Associates -- a firm specializing in blighted-neighborhood redevelopment -- said he believes that building residential units in the River District could prevent open space in the mountains from turning into suburbs. "A quiet zone is essential to make it possible to finance residential projects along the rail," he said. Developer Regina Trantham, who built the Mica Village condominiums in the River District area, spoke about how living in downtown Asheville is becoming out of the question for people of modest means. A quiet zone, she said, would support mixed-income, infill development. "It's naïve to think we're not paying by leaving large tracts of abandoned property in the middle of Asheville," she said.
The cost of the quiet zone remained a looming question. Harris said that a feasibility study would be needed to determine the cost, while Cragnolin noted that RiverLink has submitted a proposal to City Council to allocate funds for such a study.