City government

Railroad pulls a switch fence

By February 17, 2011

The city of Davis’ game of chicken with the Union Pacific Corp. continues over the railroad’s plans to build a fence along its tracks running through the city.

City officials headed to Wednesday’s meeting of the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority board, the regional body that doles out transit safety and security bonds, ready to make their case that it shouldn’t fund the fence.

By then, however, Union Pacific had changed its plans.

In a letter to the joint powers authority dated Tuesday, Scott Moore, vice president for public affairs, withdrew the company’s request for public funding for the project.

“UP will be exploring options to fund the safety fence exclusively with private dollars, though we have no timetable set for the construction to occur,” Moore wrote.

The railroad’s request for public money had provided a way for Davis officials to use a legally mandated environmental review to slow the project and pressure UP to modify its plans.

UP envisions an 8-foot-high, 3,600-foot-long fence running alongside the tracks from Richards Boulevard to the east end of Olive Drive.

City officials and residents worry the fence would worsen safety problems and isolate the adjacent Olive Drive neighborhood. They don’t want it built without a permanent at-grade bike and pedestrian crossing added at the train station.

On Tuesday, the City Council directed City Attorney Harriet Steiner to be prepared to file an injunction to halt any construction on the fence unless local concerns are addressed.

“Quite frankly (UP’s letter), convinced me that we’d done exactly the right thing the night before, which was to get our legal house ready to do what they might need to do,” Mayor Joe Krovoza said Thursday.

“I think that the City Council and the city staff have been clear in our opposition to the fence and supportive of a comprehensive solution that increases safety between the Olive Drive neighborhood and the rest of the city.”

The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority board, on which Krovoza and fellow Council member Sue Greenwald both sit, has not approved funding for the fence.

Last fall, CCJPA staff budgeted $250,000 in Prop. 1B funds toward its completion, said public information officer Luna Salaver.

David Kutrosky, the CCJPA’s managing director, told those at Wednesday’s meeting that he would hold the money in hopes that city and railroad can work through their differences.

If progress isn’t made, however, the money will be put to use elsewhere along the corridor. The board must be allocate the money by March 31, 2012, or lose it.

The board also authorized its chair, Bob Franklin, to write a letter to UP urging cooperation with the city.

On Thursday, attorneys for both sides did speak for a time by phone for the first time in a long while. City attorney Steiner said she and UP attorney David Pickett “had a good conversation” — and that she hoped to schedule a meeting between company representatives and city staff within the next week.

The call and Moore’s letter were the first “signs of life” from UP on the issue since the council’s Jan. 11 meeting the covered the issue, Krovoza said.

On Feb. 1, interim City Manager Paul Navazio followed up with a two-page letter laying out the concerns of the council and staff. That, too, has gone without a formal response.

Aaron Hunt, a UP spokesman, said the company withdrew its request for public funding after it became clear that “a public-private partnership wouldn’t be feasible at this point.”

Hunt disagreed with the assessment of local officials, saying his company had been “very responsive on the legal side and on the public affairs side.”

“We have sat in meetings with city staff. We have attended the City Council. We have been in consistent contact with the legal team,” he said. “We have definitely been committed to working with the city of Davis and we will continue to do that.

“The end result may or may not be what either side had originally envisioned but we will continue to move forward because there are real safety issues there.”

UP remains concerned about people walking across the Davis tracks, Hunt said. About 32 Amtrak trains use them each day; about 300 freight trains pass over them each week.

Statewide, 57 trespassers were killed on railroad tracks in California last year, according to the nonprofit organization Operation Lifesaver.

“That is what we are working against,” Hunt said. “One fatality is too many for us.”

Both Hunt and Krovoza expressed optimism that an agreement will be worked out.

Alan Miller, a Davis resident who attended the meeting and has long pushed for a permanent crossing, expressed some skepticism. In an e-mail message, he called the “near crisis” an opportunity for Davis to solve the safety issue.

“This either means Davis won or Davis lost,” Miller said of UP’s letter withdrawing its request for funding. “Either ‘the use of private funds’ means UP will build it themselves and damn the wishes of Davis, or UP is stating its intention to build for legal cover and has no intention of building anything in Davis anytime soon.

“My immediate goal was to stop UP’s Berlin Wall-style solution. However, the situation as it exists is neither safe nor sustainable. Eventually, the railroad will act if Davis does not. A modest, attractive fence is needed to guide people to a safe, legal and convenient crossing from Olive (Drive) to downtown, and, on the east end of Olive, to access (East Davis).”

— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or (530) 747-8046. Track him at http://twitter.com/cory_golden

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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