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Old Posted Nov 26, 2006, 10:54 AM
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Arrow Metro Phoenix Transit/Transportation Developments

Railroad touts expansion
Union Pacific builds parallel track; yard at Picacho under fire

Mark Shaffer
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 26, 2006

Union Pacific railroad's multimillion-dollar project to build a second parallel track across Arizona, which is more than half complete, is expected to cut gridlock and help freight flow through the state.

Crowded rail lines have been a chronic problem since the late 1990s because of a huge surge in the use of rail to move products from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to points east. Goods from Chinese and other Asian companies are responsible for most of the increase in traffic.

The railroad says it needs one more piece to make the system work in Arizona: a $180 million rail-switching yard to complement the yards in Phoenix and Tucson, which are operating at capacity.

The switching yard, located 80 miles south of downtown Phoenix, would offer expanded loading and unloading opportunities, especially for southeast Valley manufacturers, Union Pacific officials said.

The proposed location, however, is already drawing controversy.

The second line through the state is essential because the number of trains per day has nearly doubled to 49 in less than a decade, Union Pacific officials said. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway also has had a similar growth curve to more than 100 trains a day through Kingman, Flagstaff and other points in northern Arizona.

A shortage of truck drivers nationally also has exacerbated the problem. American Trucking Association officials say there is a shortage of 20,000 drivers in the industry, and that is expected to grow to 100,000 during the next decade.

"We've tried a lot of things to relieve the congestion, from more and more cars left on side tracks to double-stacking as many as 100 rail cars per trip," said Joe Arbona, a Union Pacific spokesman. "But with demand for Asian goods increasing 8 to 10 percent a year, we haven't been able to keep up with the growth with a single track."

Arizona is part of Union Pacific's Sunset Route from Los Angeles to El Paso before the line branches to various cities east.

The second track is being built in existing right of way, with most of the work completed between Gila Bend and the California line, and Tucson and the New Mexico line. Most of the work remaining is in south-central Arizona, including where the switching yard would be constructed.

The company would not give a specific figure for the cost of the track expansion beyond "tens of millions" of dollars.

Picacho Peak protest

Union Pacific's aggressive pursuit of purchasing nearly 1,500 acres of state trust land to build the rail-switching yard in an undeveloped area near Picacho Peak State Park has stirred up a hornet's nest of protest.

The Pinal County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote at its meeting Monday whether to rezone the land for heavy industrial use. If approved, that would kick-start negotiations between Union Pacific and the state for the land, which parallels Interstate 10.

Mark Davis, a Union Pacific spokesman in Omaha, Neb., said the company has been searching for more than three years trying to find a new switching site, "and this one is by far the best because the land is already level and there's very little else out there."

"It seems like everywhere else we've looked at there have been conflicts, whether it's been other development, cemeteries or large arroyos and rivers in the landscape," he said.

If the deal is completed, it would be one of more than 90 rail yards that Union Pacific has around the country, Davis said, adding that just more than one-third of the land would be used for rail cars and track and the rest for a buffer zone and future growth. The switching yard would employ 290 workers, 200 who now work at the railway's facilities in Tucson and 90 who would be new hires. Davis said the yard would be about three miles long.

The Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission voted down the idea of the switching yard at a meeting last month. That followed residents in the Picacho Peak area starting a "save the peak" campaign, creating a Web site and plastering billboards along I-10 with anti-Union Pacific themes.

D.C. "Rooster" Cogburn, an area rancher, said the railroad plans are the most traumatic thing to happen to the area since hot-air balloons panicked his ostrich herd and resulted in the deaths of 100 of them during a stampede six years ago.

"This is a pristine valley, and they've really set the house on fire by completely trying to alter this area and forcing it down our throats," he said.

Herb Kai, who currently leases the land from the state and grows cotton, said he has stored thousands of acre-feet of groundwater beneath the site for the Arizona Water Banking Authority. In addition to the noise and night-light impact on the state park, Kai fears for the groundwater because of the potential for accidents and chemical and fuel spills at the switching yard.

But Davis said Union Pacific has not decided whether the switching yard will be used as a fueling station.

Jamie Hogue, deputy state land commissioner, said the land department is determined to sell the property because it is mandated by state law to determine the "highest and best use" of the land. Hogue said that means selling some property bordering major highways, but that no appraisal had yet been conducted on the land.

"It would be tough arriving at a value for it because we haven't sold anything in that area for more than a decade," Hogue said, adding that the Land Department owns more than 10,000 acres in the Picacho Peak area.

Hogue and Davis said Union Pacific could make a case to claim eminent domain over the land, which would eliminate any local zoning control, but Davis said "that's definitely the last option we would consider."

Hogue said the best scenario for the state would be to sell the land by the end of 2007.

"But if the Board of Supervisors rejects this proposal, we are going to have to huddle again and come up with another approach. In the end, we will have to weigh all the interests and then take it to public auction," Hogue said.

Spur for development?

Mike Anable, a former state land commissioner who is representing Kai, said he questions how much economic development would happen around a switching yard. The project has been supported by economic development groups in nearby Casa Grande.

"From what I've seen, there are no plans for ancillary businesses there. It's strictly a switching yard to move trains," Anable said.

"It's been like all of a sudden Union Pacific comes along and, boom, we're talking heavy industrial development around a state park where hikers climb to try to get away from it all," Anable said.

"It's definitely being pushed on the fast track when what we need is an extensive, deliberate study of this."
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