Tim Steller: Let's try a land trade to get passenger rail service between Tucson, Phoenix

2013-07-21T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: Let's try a land trade to get passenger rail service between Tucson, PhoenixTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The state has got many of us dreaming of train trips between Tucson and Phoenix, but one major flaw is marring the fantasy: cost.

This month the Arizona Department of Transportation narrowed the possible routes for passenger rail service to three and made a rough estimate that building such a line would cost between $5 billion and $10 billion.

It's hard to imagine the state of Arizona, even with federal help, putting that much money toward an unproven form of transportation. But there is a so-far unused way the state could help lower the cost.

The biggest variable in the state's cost estimate: Whether we can get access to the Union Pacific Railroad's right-of-way between the cities. Union Pacific has rejected sharing tracks with passenger trains and may not want to share land either, but building passenger rails on UP's right-of-way could reduce the cost of any passenger-train project.

This is where the state has some leverage we should put to use while negotiating possible passenger rail service: Union Pacific's desire to build a rail yard just southeast of Picacho Peak, near Red Rock.

Union Pacific wants about 950 acres of state-owned land to build its huge new yard, and various parties have been discussing the project since 2006. The state wants access to Union Pacific's right-of-way for passenger service between Phoenix and Tucson.

Each side has something the other side wants. Is this not a basis for negotiation?

The state land commissioner says no.

"Our mission is to maximize revenue for the (State Land) Trust, which occurs through land planning and obtaining the highest values possible for the land we sell," Commissioner Vanessa Hickman told me in an email. "Requiring passenger rail service is outside that mission."

But common sense says Arizona should use this leverage in order to make the best, least expensive effort at establishing rail service.

"They'd be foolish not to," said Charles Banks, a railroad industry analyst in Arlington, Va. "This is the only thing Arizona has that UP wants."

Many people won't like the idea. Pinal County officials, in particular, have been pushing the state to sell Union Pacific the land in the hopes that it will create good jobs. The county, the company and state officials are in a yearlong study period intended to clarify issues that are holding back the sale.

Just like the Red Rock talks, any negotiation between the state and Union Pacific over passenger rail service will also be "very, very difficult and complex," said Banks, who has participated in such negotiations. He tried to explain to me factors in valuation such as gross ton miles but quickly surpassed my comprehension. Suffice it to say valuation is complicated.

The key is that it will take political fortitude on the state's part to even engage Union Pacific in rugged, antagonistic talks, let alone play cards such as the Red Rock land.

"UP has people who do this for a living; Arizona does not," Banks said. "It's very easy for corporations to achieve their objectives by either lobbying or making strategic contributions."

Of course, even coming to a good deal with Union Pacific does not guarantee the success of a passenger railroad. What we really need are riders.

While I'd love to read or sleep my way past Eloy, Arizona City, Sacaton and Queen Creek, I'm aware that, as State Transportation Board member Steve Christy told me, I'm a member of a vocal minority of train enthusiasts. He thinks there's much more political support for taking whatever money we would spend on a train and putting it toward road improvements.

But we shouldn't think we're choosing between a costly, passenger-train-based option along I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson and a free, interstate-based option. Without a train option, growth will mean we continue to expand the freeway at great cost. A 2010 report said the cost of expanding I-10 to 10 lanes in the 40-mile stretch between Tangerine Road and Interstate 8 would be $2.6 billion. That's about a third of the distance between Tucson and Phoenix.

Still, as Christy, the Pima County representative on the board, pointed out, people need to be able to get where they're going once they reach the station.

ADOT's project manager on the two-year-old passenger-rail study, Michael Kies, is well aware of this need.

"We are working, as part of the study, to look for appropriate hub locations in both the Phoenix area and Tucson area, (with) convenient access to ... rail systems like light rail and the modern streetcar, bus stations like the Greyhound station," Kies told me.

Ideally, these hub locations would offer amenities like those you find at an airport - rental cars, taxis and hotel shuttles.

For me and many others, this would be a dream - being able to hop a train to Phoenix and then catch the light rail or perhaps rent a car for a few hours. But to get to this point, we're going to have to pull every lever we've got to reduce costs.

One of the few we have is some barren state land that Union Pacific covets.

Tim Steller is taking some time off. Leave him a message at tsteller@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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