View Full Version : Picacho Pass site in Arizona in serious trouble

11-29-2006, 11:16 AM
Picacho Peak rail yard stirs worries
By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 11.28.2006
PICACHO PEAK — A proposal to build a Union Pacific rail yard on state-owned land three miles east of Picacho Peak has stirred concerns.
Park advocates and neighbors worry that Picacho Peak State Park's value to wildlife and tourists will disappear behind the rail yard's noise, fumes, lights and potential water pollution.
But rail yard supporters say it would provide 290 jobs, including about 90 new jobs and 200 relocated from the railroad's Tucson operations. It would serve a rapidly growing state that authorities say needs more rail facilities.
Both sides have numbers to point to: Since 1999, the number of annual visitors to Picacho Peak State Park has jumped 59 percent. In the same period, the volume of business on Union Pacific Railroad's freight lines in Arizona has shot up 46 percent.
Pinal County's Board of Supervisors will vote Wednesday on whether to change its Comprehensive Land Use Plan to clear the way for the yard.
If the proposal is approved, the State Land Department would take about a year to decide whether to sell more than 1,500 acres to the railroad for the 585-acre switching yard and extra land for future expansion and a buffer for neighbors.
Sun Corridor vision
The conflict is not just over a single rail yard, however. It symbolizes the pressures and disputes to come over development between Tucson and Phoenix, as the two urban areas grow closer together.
In 35 years, planners expect this area to be fully urbanized, as part of a continuous Sun Corridor of 10 million people stretching from Prescott to Sierra Vista and Nogales.
Those who support the idea of a rail yard here say it would lie in a perfect place to serve the new rail traffic needed to satisfy such a large area's desires for autos, refrigerators and other shipped goods.
Opponents say the railroad should pick a less sensitive area than right next to a natural landmark. The peak, which towers over Interstate 10, drew 105,000 visitors last year and nourishes huge spring wildflower crops when winter rains are plentiful.
Opponents and critics include not only neighbors and environmentalists, but the State Parks Board, a top Arizona State Museum official and the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission, which voted 5-3 to recommend against the idea.
"Take just a second to look at this view, because it won't be around much longer," said Ann Hoffman, pointing to a saguaro-covered hillside in the state park that lies next to Picacho Peak RV Park where she lives.
"The saguaros aren't going to last. The diesel fumes will kill them off. It's either going to run the wildlife out of the area or it will kill them."
The rail yard would be built on or very near land that is dotted with remains from ancient Hohokam Indian villages. It also lies very near the historic site of the 1862 Civil War Battle of Picacho Pass, said John Madsen, the Arizona State Museum's associate curator of archaeology.
He hopes the railroad would properly record and recover historic data from the Hohokam sites if it can't avoid them. But Madsen said he opposes this rail yard site because he believes it will hurt the view of the battlefield, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Environmental issues
The railroad promises the most environmentally friendly operation of its kind in the country: a switching yard that meets every state and federal regulation while it moves rail cars from one train to another.
It says it will prevent any spills sending diesel fuel into the groundwater by placing collection pans on the site to catch leaks, and that it has significantly improved its technology over the years to capture diesel air emissions so they don't waft into neighboring areas.
The state Land Department says a switching yard is needed somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix not only to handle rail traffic, but also to provide jobs for Pinal County's rapidly growing bedroom communities.
"If the thought is that we just don't want any development anywhere that can be seen from Picacho Peak, that's completely unrealistic," said Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman at a recent meeting of the State Parks Board, on which he sits.
"Nobody really probably wants a switching yard in their back yard. Nobody wants a sewer treatment plant. Nobody wants a landfill. But you always have these kinds of uses.
"This isn't a pristine area. We've got an interstate that runs through that area that is noisy. I would venture to guess that you've got more diesel trucks going up and down that interstate than you've got trains," he added.
Groundwater concerns
The switching yard, lying about six miles north of the Pima-Pinal County line, would fill what is now pecan and cotton farms on land that longtime area farmer Herb Kai leases from the state.
Kai said he has helped the area's water table rise from 400 feet to 250 feet deep since 1995 by putting Central Arizona Project water on his crops instead of pumping groundwater, but he is concerned that the aquifer will be contaminated by leaks from the rail yard.
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis, however, said that with increasingly strict state and federal rules protecting groundwater, contamination is not going to happen.
To show what he says is the railroad's commitment to environmental compliance, Winkleman pointed out that the company has agreed to meet Pima County's strict light pollution law even though the yard would lie in another county.
"People are using scare tactics like 'it's going to ruin the water.' Well, that's why we have agencies to regulate this sort of thing," Winkleman said.
Two-mile-long site
The site would be two miles long and shift rail cars from one train to another, to send them to the city or town for which the trains are bound. Operating with 36 main tracks and a handful of support tracks, the yard would handle rail traffic from within the Southwest and across the nation.
Winkleman referred directly to the Sun Corridor concept at the parks board meeting in trying to persuade fellow board members not to reject the proposal out of hand. The board voted last month to oppose the rail yard plan for now because no studies have been done on its effects. It did not flatly oppose the project, however.
"Pinal County is in a terrible situation right now because they are essentially bedroom communities to Phoenix and Tucson," the land commissioner said. "Anyone who has tried to drive I-10 or any of the roadways up there knows the terrible traffic and pollution problems. One of the solutions is not to have people have to drive all the way to Tucson or all the way to Phoenix to work, and to have an employment base."
Currently, the state has a capacity crisis — not enough switching facilities to accommodate all the railroad traffic needed to ship goods bound for Arizona, he said. Gov. Janet Napolitano has formed a committee to deal with this problem, he said.
Cheapest alternative
The company chose this site after an extensive search and rejected several other sites because they lie close to schools or homes or have irrigation canals running through them, said Davis, a Union Pacific spokesman in Omaha, Neb. The land's flatness —caused partially by its being leveled for farming — was also an attraction, he said.
"That's the cheapest alternative for them — otherwise they have to go out and deal with washes and level the land at high cost," said Mike Anable, a former state land commissioner who is working as a consultant for Kai. But he added, "I really don't think that is a good reason to spoil the peak."
On StarNet: Star reporter Tony Davis narrates a mini-documentary on the topic at www.azstarnet.com/video
● Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com.