Tim Steller: Picacho Peak Park already has noise problem, so rail yard plan deserves careful attention

2013-05-12T00:00:00Z 2013-05-12T18:04:53Z Tim Steller: Picacho Peak Park already has noise problem, so rail yard plan deserves careful attentionTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PICACHO PEAK STATE PARK - As you climb the northeast side of Picacho Peak, distant noise accompanies you: Interstate 10 traffic, the long passing trains, the occasional flyover by F-16s apparently using the mountain as a landmark.

If this place once was pristine - or at least quiet - it no longer is. You might even call it profane, since the MPassion Adult Boutique opened and put up a big pink sign below the peak in 2011.

For 6 1/2 years, the Union Pacific Railroad has been pushing a project that would add to that noise. The railroad wants to buy up to 1,900 acres of state trust land across Interstate 10 from the peak for a rail yard that would be six miles long and up to 74 tracks wide.

Most neighbors don't like the idea, and neither do some environmental groups, who point to the proximity of Picacho Peak State Park, just across the freeway from the northern end of the proposed yard.

"When we think of places like Picacho Peak, we think of them not having major industrial-type facilities right next to them," the Sierra Club's Sandy Bahr told me. "It seems like if you're going to have development activities near the park, it would be nice to have things that aren't as intensive as a rail yard."

But as I climbed Picacho on Thursday morning with my brother-in-law Jim Machelor, I couldn't help but view the freeway side of the mountain as a lost cause when it comes to noise and visual pollution. The freeway is there, getting busier and noisier by the year, and so is the famous Dairy Queen and the two gas stations on the east side, and a used-car-lot/mechanic shop and the adult store ("Picacho Peak Porn" is what Jim called it) on the west side.

Mechanic Tom Hussak, who's fixed cars at the base of Picacho Peak for decades, looked across at the proposed rail yard site when I met him Thursday and said: "It not like that's a national landmark over there."

The Arizona Land Department is analyzing details of the project, along with Union Pacific and Pinal County officials. In September, the department issued two reports by consultants looking at the infrastucture issues raised by the project as well as its potential economic benefits.

The state is not hurrying to sell, pointing to issues with traffic flow, drainage patterns and, most of all, access to large swaths of state trust land that would be cut off from the freeway by the project.

The Land Department is charged with getting the best value for the land when it sells off the 9 million acres in the trust. So while the rail yard sale would bring in money, its presence might reduce the value of adjacent lands.

The state's apparent reluctance bothers some, such as the Goldwater Institute's Byron Schlomach, who noted that - at the current rate of sales - the state would take centuries to sell off its trust land.

"There appears to be a philosophy, and obviously it appears to go across party lines, of holding onto the land, and apparently thinking it's in better hands when the government owns it," Schlomach said.

Pinal County officials, such as Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Miller, enthusiastically support the project. They hope that beyond the 300 people U-P says it may employ permanently at the yard, it could become a logistics hub with many more jobs.

With those pressures working in favor of the sale, neighbors view the state's cautious approach as a good thing. For Mike Wirth, who owns Picacho Peak RV Park, the rail yard means a possible end to his 312-space business.

"I think it needs to go somewhere else, or they need to buy us out," he said.

Rosa Carrillo, who lives on Aguirre Lane in the older part of Red Rock, said the trains are a bother at their current volume. They make the windows vibrate and they honk at crossings. Sometimes they wake her up at night.

"The jobs would be a good thing, but it should be a little farther back," she said in Spanish.

The slow progress on the project and the neighbors' objections bring to mind another proposed industrial development in Southern Arizona: the Rosemont Mine. Opponents of that proposed open-pit copper mine feel that the longer they drag out the permitting process, the more likely it is to fail.

But the differences between the two projects are stark: Rosemont's owner, Augusta Resource Corp., is a new company depending on the faith of investors that it can hold out long enough to start making money back from the mine. Union Pacific is, well, Union Pacific: an established, deep-pocketed, powerful company that can afford to wait.

In part because of that, it's a good thing the Land Department is making them wait. If Union Pacific really wants this site, the department should make the company address the infrastructure and pollution problems the project raises, and pay a full price for the land. It may even need to buy out some neighbors.

But the visual and noise pollution you hear and see from Picacho Peak - that issue has already been decided, in favor of noise and Picacho Peak Porn.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter.

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

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