A rail yard project proposed near Picacho Peak in southern Arizona is gaining support from some state and federal politicians who are pressuring officials to sell a section of farmland to Union Pacific without delay.
The Arizona Republic reports the freight giant wants to build its biggest yard between Los Angeles and Texas along the east side of Interstate 10 on property owned by the Arizona State Land Trust.
Union Pacific Corp. first applied with the Arizona State Land Department to buy the land in 2006, but the request has been stalled by the recession and opposition.
In September, a pair of Land Department reports raised concerns about the plan. While consultants recommended a sale, they also said that the rail yard posed significant environmental and engineering challenges and advised that the touted economic benefits were exaggerated.
The Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted this month to send a six-page letter to State Land Commissioner Maria Baier urging her to “quickly move to auction the property at a price that allows the bidder to have a financially feasible project.”
U.S. Rep. Trent Franks wrote a similar letter earlier this month to Gov. Jan Brewer, saying “it would be deeply disappointing if our state cannot act fast enough to capture this opportunity.” Franks and Brewer are both Republicans.
Baier said the land in consideration is near an important transportation corridor and that protecting the value of the state land trust is her top priority.
“This is I-10,” Baier said. “Just because we don’t do something in my lifetime doesn’t mean it won’t be something really good. That bothers a lot of people who are looking at this as something to do in their lifetimes. I know I’ll be dead before we run out of state land. My job is to protect the perpetual trust.”
The trust consists of millions of acres of land that the federal government gave Arizona at statehood to benefit schools and other public institutions.
Union Pacific has said it will invest $250 million to develop the 950-acre site, which would employ up to 300 workers.
The project, called the Red Rock Classification Yard, has pitted the economic-development ambitions of the county against the plans of some nearby landowners.
Supporters see a potential freight-logistics business park as a chance for badly needed jobs and a way to diversify the local economy.
“It’s a good fit,” Pinal County Supervisor Pete Rios said. “If we don’t get Union Pacific, I see empty land there for decades. Our concern is if they have to wait too long, they’ll drop it.”
Opponents worry that such an operation would ruin the views from the nearby Picacho Peak State Park, poison the groundwater and create noise pollution.
Supporters and opponents question whether the touted benefits and the potential drawbacks have been overstated.
Red Rock would be a switching yard. The facility would be 6 miles long and up to 74 tracks wide. There, Union Pacific workers would break apart trains and reassemble them based on the destinations of cargo. Union Pacific said even if the land is sold quickly, it may be years before it opens because the company will have to figure out engineering complexities.
Union Pacific is developing a similar site in eastern New Mexico.
Company and state officials are trying to set up meetings to review engineering and environmental details, but no dates have been set.