Committee chairman pulls plug on railroad legislation - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Committee chairman pulls plug on railroad legislation

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Posted: Saturday, February 9, 2008 4:37 am | Updated: 8:45 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

A proposal to slow the ability of railroads to take land for new switching yards and tracks has stalled as a key lawmaker told both sides he wants them to try to negotiate a deal instead.

Rep. John Nelson, R-Glendale, yanked the measure from consideration after learning that supporters of the bill and the railroads had not sought to find common ground since Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a similar measure last year.

Nelson has that right as chairman of the House Committee on Counties, Municipalities and Military Affairs, the panel to which HB 2156 is assigned.

Lobbyists for both sides agreed to sit and talk. But they all acknowledged that the positions are so divergent as to make a compromise difficult, if not impossible.

Nelson promised, though, if they can’t reach a deal, he will allow the measure to proceed, even with the possibility that it actually would run afoul of federal law.

The measure stems from efforts by Union Pacific Railroad to construct a six-mile-long switching yard near Picacho Peak. The company also has previously expressed interest in a new rail spur from Yuma to Mexico, though company spokesman Luis Heredia said that plan is currently off the table.

Technically, nothing in HB 2156 would block the company from doing either. Instead it would allow the Arizona Corporation Commission to review any plans if a railroad sought to seize private property through its power of eminent domain or obtain state land at auction.

Commissioners also could require the railroad to conduct studies, including looking at alternate sites, as well as conduct at least one public hearing.

But nothing would prevent the railroad from going ahead with its original plans. Despite that, Nick Simonetta, who lobbies for landowners in both the Picacho and Yuma areas, said the measure would serve a purpose because it would shine a public light on plans before track is laid.

“And now they have to go forward with all the policymakers, all the congressional delegation members, all of the public, the media, understanding what’s going to happen,” Simonetta said. He said railroads might decide to alter their plans rather than face the bad publicity.

Heredia said Union Pacific believes anything that even delays projects is unwise. He contends that the federal Surface Transportation Board has sole authority to decide where new rail lines can go.

But Heredia conceded Union Pacific does not need federal approval for either switching yards adjacent to existing track or putting in a second parallel track to existing rails.

Heredia said, though, his company still needs to comply with local zoning regulations as well as water and air quality rules.

Nelson acknowledged the legal problems with the bill and the fact that, even if implemented, it could not block a company’s plans.

But he said it might engender enough publicity to force Congress to act and trim the power of railroads to do what they please.

At the moment the railroads appear to have the upper hand, at least politically, as the bill is little different from the one Napolitano rejected last year.

In her veto message, the governor said the measure unnecessarily changed regulation of railroads. Napolitano said she would insist that companies take into account both environmental and community concerns but said the legislation “would only complicate those efforts.”

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