State regulators have joined the fight against a railroad storage yard that’s been proposed near a Tempe hospital, high school and neighborhood.
The Arizona Corporation Commission is trying to persuade Union Pacific to ditch its plans for the yard, saying it raises too many safety hazards and quality-of-life concerns.
This new opposition is welcome to Tempe, but it has a significant drawback. Because Congress long ago gave railroads broad powers to expand their facilities, the commission — like Tempe — has no legal authority to stop plans for two sets of tracks between Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, 1500 S. Mill Ave., and Tempe High School, 1730 S. Mill Ave.
They can do little but protest. Commissioner William Mundell said that’s the strategy.
"I’m going to be using the bully pulpit to try to convince Union Pacific that they should try to look at other alternatives," Mundell said.
The same kind of pressure got Kinder Morgan Energy Partners to abandon a 50-year-old gas pipeline in Chandler, though the commission also had no legal authority to make that happen, Mundell said. The company and Chandler had feuded over the line, which ran where the city was widening Pecos Road.
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said he’s encouraged by support from Mundell and Commissioner Kris Mayes. Hallman has suggested the railroad put the storage yard in an industrial area where the rail line goes south of Broadway Road.
Union Pacific needs the switching yard to handle growing traffic. It lets trains turn around or pick up and drop off boxcars — and it will reduce rail traffic between Tempe and Phoenix. A Union Pacific official did not return calls Wednesday.
The increased demand worries Elizabeth Crate Herbert, whose house is along the line. She fears even if the railroad pledges to limit use initially, growing demand will lead to more traffic eventually. "They’re only going to need it more and more," she said.
Opponents fear the yard will bring hazardous materials to the area, increase noise and the odds of students or others getting run over. Mundell said he’s concerned tracks run so close to homes and that the yard is expected to have heavy traffic from 3 to 5 a.m.
"I don’t think it’s appropriate to have the facility at that location," he said.
Rail officials met with city employees, school administrators and neighborhood leaders Wednesday. They didn’t reach any deal, but agreed to keep talking.