Spurred by controversy over Union Pacific's expansion plans, a bill approved by the Arizona Senate would require new state regulatory oversight of use of eminent domain by railroads to acquire property.
The Senate voted 26-0 on Thursday for the bill, which now goes to the House. The House originally passed the bill when it dealt with an unrelated topic.
Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific and Fort Worth, Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the other major railroad operating in Arizona, oppose the bill.
Supporters include agricultural groups and land owners of property in two areas being eyeballed by Union Pacific for planned or possible projects.
One is near Picacho Peak in Pinal County where the railroad wants to build a new switching yard off a stretch of its Sunset Route mainline. The second is a possible new spur line that might cross farmland near Yuma to reach Mexico to serve a proposed new seaport.
A cotton farmer now leasing state land at the Picacho site objects to possibility of being evicted, and there is also concern about an underground water-recharge facility operated by the state under the farmer's fields. Meanwhile, Yuma-area farmers say their operations and their crops could be damaged economically and environmentally by the line to Mexico and exhaust from trains running on it.
When initially proposed in the Senate, the bill would have required that railroads obtain approval from the state Corporation Commission to use existing eminent-domain authority to compel land sales.
Union Pacific objected that the requirement to obtain state approval conflicts with federal law giving exclusive authority to approve railroad projects to the Surface Transportation Board.
In an attempt to deal with the railroad's objection, the Senate earlier this week to delete the requirement to obtain state approval. Instead, the bill requires a railroad seeking to use eminent domain to hire experts to brief the Corporation Commission on economic, natural resource, water and other possible impacts and to allow the commission to suggest alternatives.
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