Bill requires panel to review auction, eminent domain requests from railroads: Yuma AZ Sun, 6/20/07

By Howard Fischer

[Arizona] lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to legislation that could throw roadblocks in the path of railroads that want to build new lines and switching yards. The measure now headed to Gov. Janet Napolitano allows the Arizona Corporation Commission to review any effort by a railroad to take land by eminent domain or by auction, the latter apparently referring to the purchase of state land.

That review would determine if the company has explored alternate sites as well as the impact it would have on everything from water quality and the area's economy to geographic landmarks. The commission also could have a public hearing.

But the review would be just that: In the end, nothing would block the railroad from going ahead with its original plans.

Despite that, Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, who crafted the measure, said he believes it will make a difference.

"The citizens in this state are finally going to have a chance to comment on what the railroads are doing in their community,'' he said. And Paton said it must mean something, as the railroads "sent 40 lawyers to sit in my office to ask me to kill this bill.''

HB 2020 is aimed primarily at Union Pacific, which wants to construct a switching yard on state trust land near Picacho Peak. The company also plans to double its tracks on its main line from San Simon to Yuma.

The company apparently has dropped plans to build an entirely new line through Yuma south to the U.S.-Mexico border. But Paton said he is not convinced that Union Pacific or some other operator might not resurrect the plan, which has alarmed farmers in the area.

But the legislation is crafted so it will affect other railroads that operate in the state - assuming it is legal.

Attorneys for several railroads testified that they answer solely to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. They said states may not impose their own requirements, even if those simply involve additional studies.

Union Pacific lobbyist Allan Stanton told lawmakers a lawsuit is likely.

The Pinal County Board of Supervisors already has sent a letter to Napolitano saying the switching yard is necessary and that they believe Union Pacific will be "an excellent asset to our community and a good neighbor,'' even agreeing to shield the lights to comply with the county's "dark sky ordinance.''

Board Chairman Lionel Ruiz, who wrote the letter, also poked fun at those who complained the rail yard would ruin the aesthetics of the area. He said there are multiple service stations, a recreational vehicle park and even a Dairy Queen near the peak.

Yuma AZ Sun: http://www.yumasun.com