Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Measure R on right track for rail deal

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Measure R money isn't just for road projects' it can now be used to purchase railroad tracks, the Foothills Sun-Gazette reports. The Tulare County, Calif., Board of Supervisors approved an amendment to the Measure R expenditure plan that will allow the county to purchase railroad fixtures including ties, ballast, tracks and signals to ensure that the property is maintained for rail use.

The money is generated from a half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2006 to fund transportation projects throughout the county. Supervisor Phil Cox said he would vote in favor of the amendment with one concession: 'I will never support using government money to buy anything out there [along the railroad].' However, Cox said he believed that the amendment was prudent because it included a clause stating any agency requesting rail funds must submit a plan demonstrating the economic viability prior to receiving funds.

The vote passed 3-1, with Supervisor Pete Vander Poel the lone dissenting vote.

'I want to give TCAG the opportunity to preserve rail at the lowest cost, but I don't agree that [Measure R] money should be used to purchase railroad ties, ballasts, tracks and signals,' Vander Poel said. 'I can't support this whole package.'

Supervisor Allen Ishida did not vote because he left the meeting to travel to Florida for a meeting with RailAmerica executives. Ishida said he, along with Rail Advisory Chair Tom Sparks and Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG) Director Ted Smalley would be discussing the company's future use of San Joaquin Valley Railroad right-of-way, tracks, ties, ballast, etc. in eastern Tulare County.

'Short-haul rail is a priority in all eight counties of the Valley from Kern to San Joaquin,' Ishida said. 'But because of the abandonments here, Tulare County has been pushed to the center of the push to make sure the Valley has rail in place.'

Ishida said that it was likely this meeting was the last time that county officials would be able to publicly speak about the railroad issue, because RailAmerica would only negotiate if the county were to sign a confidentiality agreement going forward.

County Counsel Kathleen Bales-Lange clarified that approving the amendment does not give TCAG the authority to spend money on any railroad assets without appropriate public discussion and input.

In order to fully enact the amendment, at least half of the county's eight cities representing half of the county's population have to approve the document. During a special meeting, Exeter became the last of the foothill cities to approve the amendment. Farmersville, Lindsay and Woodlake all approved the amendment in December. Tulare and Visalia also approved the amendment in December, giving the amendment enough cities to satisfy the population requirement.

Measure R was originally amended to allow for the Right Of Way acquisition and/or preservation of rail corridors in November 2008 after the San Joaquin Valley Railroad filed for abandonment of a 30-mile segment of rail between Jovista, near Delano, and Lindsay and an adjoining 10-mile segment from Lindsay to Exeter. In June 2008, the Surface Transportation Board approved the abandonment of the 30-mile section saying that SJVR would lose $110,878 if it continued to operate the rail line for another year.

While TCAG argued that the loss of the rail line would negatively affect air quality by increasing truck transportation and deny businesses needed rail access, the STB countered that 'no traffic has moved over the line since October 2006, and there is no credible evidence in the record showing that shippers have made a commitment to resume rail shipments to the extent necessary to warrant requiring SJVR to continue to provide rail service over this line,' despite serving historical rail users such as Tri K Truss, Sierra Forest Products and Britz Fertilizer.

STB denied SJVR's second proposal to abandon the nine-mile stretch of rail, citing SJVR's own evidence that Tulare Frozen Food's traffic on the Line had increased dramatically since 2005. In addition, TFF provided evidence that there would be a substantial increase in traffic once its new storage facility is completed. 'Thus, it appears that Tulare Frozen Food's traffic levels and the resulting revenues for SJVR are increasing and that they may continue to increase.'

TFF stated that truck transportation would add significant costs: approximately $250 per truckload to Fresno, and approximately $330 per truckload to transfer at Fresno, totaling an additional $580 per truckload. At three truckloads per rail carload, the total added costs of truck transportation would be $1,740 per rail carload and would have cost the company an additional $261,000 in the next year.

STB said that part of their decision was based on incomplete information regarding the section of track and that the railroad could re-apply for the abandonment, which officials agree SJVR will likely do.

SJVR has also hinted that they may apply to abandon another segment of the line running from Exeter to Dinuba. And recently, Tulare Valley Railroad filed for abandonment of three-mile long line from Ducor to Ultra, east of Terra Bella.

According to SJVR, the track was completed in 1897 by the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad. A year later, it was purchased by Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway Company. Eventually, the rail was purchased by Southern Pacific and Kyle Railways in 1992. States Rail acquired Kyle in 1997 and then States Rail was purchased by RailAmerica in 2002.

SJVR line is still owned by RailAmerica, Inc., Based in Boca Raton, Fla., RailAmerica operates 41 shortline and regional railroads along 7,800 miles of track in 25 states and three Canadian provinces. Union Pacific owns the land and 100-foot right-of-way on which the line runs.

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