SMART is spending $12 million on its train crossings to qualify them as quiet zones, where approaching trains may be exempted from blowing their horns.

It is up to the counties and individual cities, however, to weigh the safety factors and apply for to state and federal regulators for quiet zone designation.

"It is a balancing act," said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District. "If you are living next to the track, do you want the horn because it is the most effective safety measure? The gates come down and the lights flash and the bells ring, but there are always people who think they can beat the train."

Sonoma County Public Works Director Phillip Demery said it is also an issue of liability.

"It is not foolproof," Demery said. "If there is ever an accident and it is proven the operator didn't hit the train horn, the rail company takes the stance that they are indemnified against any accident or fatality. The city or county has to bear the risk."

The rail line will be shared by SMART and Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. freight trains.

In usual railroad operations, commute and freight train operators are required to sound the horn 15 to 20 seconds before reaching a crossing, with a pattern of two long blasts, a short blast and a final long blast.

The required decibel level is 96 to 110, loud enough to be heard but below ear-shattering.

SMART is overhauling the train crossings as it rebuilds the track between Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael for commute trains. Service is scheduled to begin in late 2015 or early 2016.

As part of the work, SMART is spending $12 million for such additional "quiet zone" measures as special crossing gates and traffic islands that are intended to keep motorists from being able to drive onto the tracks.

Only the cities and counties, however, have the authority to apply to the state Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration for quiet zone status.

If additional work is still needed to meet the requirements, SMART is also committing another $50,000 to an individual crossing, with the city or county picking up anything more, Mansourian said.

City and county officials say quiet zones will eventually be a policy decision by city councils and supervisors, but it is already being discussed at the staff level.

"The county administrator is aware of it, but I haven't heard of any schedule to take it to the board," Demery said. "Since the crossings are being accommodated now, it is not pressing."

Demery, like most transportation officials, believes it is best to wait until the after trains begin to run.

"Until you have trains, people don't know if they have to have quiet zones or not," Demery said. "Now, it is not an issue, but it could be an issue a year or two from now when freight trains are rolling behind people's homes."

Santa Rosa traffic engineer Rob Sprinkle also thinks it would be prudent to wait until rail service is well re-established.

"Blowing the horn is a good thing, at least at the onset," Sprinkle said. "As things get established, we may want to get quiet zones. We need the council to make the decision. Safety-wise, it is safer to blow the horn."

There is already strong interest in San Rafael, said City Manager Nancy Mackle.

"People are anxious to know how it works," Mackle said. "Our intention is not to wait. We are paying attention now, we are talking to SMART now, we are trying to get ahead of it and not wait until six months before the trains run."

The city of Novato may also wait, said Public Works Director Jason Nutt.

"There is definitely a safety issue here," Nutt said. "The California Public Utilities Commission has come out in opposition to quiet zones, that taking away a train operator's primary safety tool is not wise."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.