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Train whistles annoy new South Siders

Monday, October 16, 2000

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Though things are changing on the South Side, at least one remnant of its former industrial heritage still clings to the neighborhood: the locomotive whistles that blast day and night.

That's what new residents have found since moving into townhouses built close to the Monongahela riverfront. There, the whistles blare as trains approach the street crossings between Station Square and the entrance to the South Side Riverfront Park at 18th Street.

Two years ago, Terry Boots was among the first people to move into a new townhouse complex on 16th Street, some 80 feet from the tracks.

He'd been around trains all his life, knew the whistles would be loud and knew they were needed for safety, but he wasn't prepared for how haphazardly they would be sounded.

Some conductors hit the horns a few times and stop. Some lay on the horns for blocks at a time. Some do the "shave and a haircut, two bits" routine. All are annoying.

Boots, 50, savors the industrial past of the South Side; he and his partner, Bill Cohen, keep a history of their property in their living room, next to industrial artifacts they've found on walks with their dog, Dewey.

But still, Boots thinks limiting the whistle patterns is another way the neighborhood can metamorphose into something better.

"No one was thinking about housing down here 30 years ago. Back then, the sound of a train whistle was good news -- to an old Polish woman it meant her son still had a job. And that's fine," Boots said.

"But now there is new housing. And new problems to deal with."

Like the rest of the South Side's riverfront, the area between 16th and 18th streets used to be industrial, and in the case of Boots' neighborhood, was home to barrel and glass making.

Much of that area has recently been redeveloped for new purposes.

More than 20 riverfront townhouses are already up at Boots' development, South Shore Place, and scores more are in various stages of building and planning. They attempt to combine the best of the old South Side world and the new.

Resembling old South Side row houses, the townhouses are compact and handsome and have great views of Downtown and the river.

Unlike others in the densely packed neighborhood, where residents lay claims to parking spaces like prospectors for gold, they have garages.

But while it's easy to see the changes, it's hard to hear them.

From about 50 feet from the tracks, the train whistles were consistently measured one evening last week at about 95 decibels, using a a meter owned by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That's not as loud as driving past a rock concert -- about 110 decibels -- but it's far above the city's noise ceiling of 68 decibels. A motorist with a car stereo blaring at 95 decibels could be fined $150.

City Councilman Gene Ricciardi last month proposed banning or at least limiting the whistles at designated city railroad crossings equipped with safety devices, such as warning signals and gates.

One such crossing -- perhaps the most used one in the city -- is on 18th Street, by the new housing developments and Ricciardi's own house near Fox Way.

Congress passed a law in 1994 requiring locomotives, as a safety measure, to blow their horns at all public at-grade railroad crossings.

The Federal Railroad Administration is still considering how to implement the law, and communities nationwide have pleaded with the agency for ways to implement "quiet zones" that would restrict some of the horn blasts.

The agency's final ruling on the quiet zones will be released sometime around the end of the year.

Ricciardi said last week -- before putting his proposal on hold for four weeks for more study -- that old-time South Siders such as him are used to the whistles, but the restrictions are needed to attract new residents to the community.

Other residents agree. Paula Suess, who has lived a block from the 18th street crossing for 22 years, says the whistles don't bother her anymore.

Gazing out at the ripped-up riverfront and nearby streets last week, she said she was more worried by all the construction going on around her and what it would look like when it's finished.

Both Suess and Boots said some of the whistles could be eliminated if the city would move the entrance to the South Side Park to its eastern end at 25th Street, near the new South Side Works project, where the trains go into a four-block tunnel. Then the crossing wouldn't be necessary anymore, so the trains wouldn't need to hit their horns until they had passed the 10th Street Bridge on their way toward Station Square.

Neither city Public Works Director Guy Costa nor Engineering and Construction Director Fred Reginella had heard that idea before, but both said they would consider it.

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