Train-horn noise blares through political tribalism in Carroll

October 8, 2022 8:00 am

The Iowa Northern Railway will receive $7.2 million in federal infrastructure funding. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Transportation)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Like other communities around the nation that have used a variety of strategies to silence train horns, my hometown, Carroll, Iowa, is split on whether to spend tax dollars to reduce the noise coming from the two Union Pacific Lines crossing seven intersections in our slice of western Iowa.

“It’s one of the constant problems — 50 percent of the people want it, and 50 percent of the people don’t,” said City Public Works Director Randy Krauel.

That tracks with what the city’s consultant on rail noise, Bolton & Menk, has seen with other cities, Krauel said.

But unlike so many issues today, in fact, most conversations and topics, the debate over the noise from dozens of daily trains making their way through Carroll on cross-country journeys — with coal and other products — is not remotely partisan.

The discussions here, whether calm or heated, break through the predictable and relentless tribe-gathering politics. The community is balkanized on train noise with advocates and opponents coming from different social classes, races and political parties.

“Oftentimes, they said the natives were not for it, and the new people were,” Krauel said.

I’ve lived here most of my life and don’t notice the train horns. New residents can’t sleep.

All of this leads to a bigger point.

Local government stories, so many of which are being lost in the Great Newspaper Disruption, serve many purposes.

Yes, they inform, of course, but local government binds people together on the actual merits of taxpayer-funded actions: what streets to clear first during snow, where to build a new park, how much to invest in incentives for new homes to fill vacant or blighted spots, and yes, in the case of Carroll, how much, if any money, do we spend to create quiet zones with directional train horns or more crossing protection instead of the conductor-controlled horns.

Often, Republicans and Democrats and independents form coalitions on these local issues having little to do with their parties, save perhaps for some overarching worldview influence on how deeply government should be involved in our lives, for example. But it’s a blend of local issues with political philosophy, generally reasoned, and most certainly expressed respectfully, not the-cult-of-personality politics driving both major political parties into rafter-level battiness.

I think covering Carroll City Council meetings is more important for Carroll Times Herald readers than being at presidential or gubernatorial campaign events. I recently skipped the visit of a statewide candidate to cover a city meeting. (The candidate, State Auditor Rob Sand, agreed with my decision to prioritize local.)

The other thing about local news stories: people are one or two or three degrees of separation from the sources and the issues so they know whether the facts are the facts. Publications and politicians can’t cynically craft misinformation campaigns on local government stories because they will be revealed before the ink dries or the link goes stale.

There’s much high-minded talk about how to stitch a divided nation together again.

It starts at the local level with local news, with citizens gathered in a city hall to discuss what they hear with their own ears — the train-horn noise in our case.

Once people have joined with others from different parties and backgrounds in advocacy on local matters, it’s harder to demonize on state and national politics.

But without the story in the newspaper, there are fewer if any local debates — and that sends people to the fever swamp of social media, and eventually to their corners for endless rounds of partisan boxing that leave both sides bloody and our democracy punches away from being down for the count.

This column was originally published by Douglas Burns’ blog, “The Iowa Mercury” and is shared here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Douglas Burns
Douglas Burns

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist whose family operated the Carroll Times Herald for 93 years. He is the founder and director of development for the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. Additionally, Burns founded a marketing and advertising firm, Mercury Boost, which is based in Council Bluffs. He is the business development director for Latino IQ, an Iowa-based organization. Burns, who resides in Carroll, writes for a number of Iowa newspapers with his work also having appeared in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Kansas City Star. You can subscribe to his blog, The Iowa Mercury, on Substack.