Two politicians debate the Big Dig—for depressed train tracks in downtown Reno
The Reno City Council is scheduled to vote on the $200 million-plus ReTRAC project Tuesday. Whether digging a trench for the train tracks is the greatest idea since industrial lubricant or a potential “boondoggle that will bankrupt the city” depends on who you ask.
David Aiazzi, a Reno City Councilman and member of the Regional Transportation Commission, is a huge proponent of the ReTRAC project. He says the best time to solve the 60-year-old problem is now, while funding is available.
But Jim Galloway, Washoe County Commissioner, says the project is ill-conceived, expensive and risky. He hopes the Council will vote the project down, step back and reexamine alternatives.
Here’s how the two elected officials answer some basic questions about the Big Dig.
RN&R: Why build the trench now?
Aiazzi: To me, the railroad is a traffic issue, nothing more than that. We have to make some crucial decisions. Do we want to build more roads or make our existing roads more fluid for drivers? We’ve got the financing put together to do this project [and save taxpayers money]. Every other road construction project we talk about, we pay 100 percent. The leveraging of the tax dollars is really important here.
Galloway: Former mayor Carl Bogart said that every time the City Council looked at it before, they decided it cost too much for what they got. The city never spent the money to make this less of a problem, building sufficient overpasses and underpasses to establish a good traffic pattern. Establish a traffic pattern that works, and there will be no need for this risky, costly project.
RN&R: Why can’t we just tell Union Pacific, “No new trains"?
Galloway: We can go back to the negotiating table if the council kills this project. But if they go ahead, there can be no more claims on Union Pacific at all. And we’ll pay for all their environmental liabilities as well.
Aiazzi: We don’t control Union Pacific. The surface transportation board has already told them they can run through at 36 miles an hour if they want to. As an example, we can’t say “No new traffic on I-80,” either.
RN&R: Why not nicely ask Union Pacific to drive their trains through, say, the Feather River Route via Quincy and Gerlach?
Aiazzi: We have absolutely no control. It’s interstate commerce controlled by federal government. That’s the lawsuit [that the City filed against the federal government in 1996]. We tried that route, and it didn’t work. Also, the railroad is a key component to our economy here. Warehousing is one of the main industries in all of Nevada.
Galloway: I don’t think all this was adequately investigated. If this project is killed, which it should be, the first thing is to look at that and many other alternatives that were prematurely ruled out in the Alternative Screening Report.
RN&R: Why put this much effort into this particular aspect of making downtown attractive and user-friendly when the downtown casinos are facing increased competition from online and Indian gambling, Las Vegas and more destination gambling resorts?
Aiazzi: I’m not sure when we would do it. Times are good, so people say, “We shouldn’t do it. It’ll impact our business.” When times are bad, they say, “Why do it now? We don’t need it.” The way I look at it, the gaming people are in favor of this right now, and they’re the experts. They’re also paying for a large chunk of it, voluntarily.
Galloway: The timing is poor. Let me quote George Flint, owner of the Chapel of the Bells: “This will further weaken a weak situation.” You don’t want to get word out that Reno is all torn up and hasten the day that people decide to go to another destination.
RN&R: How realistic is the estimated cost of $218 million for the project?
Galloway: It’s about half of what I believe is the true minimum cost. Some costs in the “official estimate” were understated and others were completely left out. For instance, I believe that the cost of business interruption and loss created by the project need to be considered costs of the project. I think [my $400 million-plus estimate] is conservative, because we have so many unknowns underground. They haven’t funded any overrun, and failure to do so could leave the city in bankruptcy. Are you going to cut out your police or fire services to do it? Then we have the word go out that Reno is torn up and bankrupt, what do you think that would do to tourism?
Aiazzi: As far as I know, [the estimate is] as realistic as it can get. The true estimate won’t be available until we get a bid from a contractor. The private sector is going to tell us what this will cost, and they’re going to tell us before we start any project. [If the project is approved], the options are more than just the trench. If we choose not to do the underground because the bids come in at $300 million, that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. That means we go back and look at less satisfactory options, like underpasses and overpasses.
RN&R: I’m confused about the money thing. How much are taxpayers going to be contributing?
Galloway: Almost all of it. All but $18 million of the cash in this project will be from local taxes. There is a federal loan, but loans have to be paid back. The railroad’s contribution? At one point, the city had $35 million cash on the table, offered by Union Pacific. Now there’s no cash. Now there’s $17 million from UP to build their own bypass track. And they’re going to contribute some properties and air rights of questionable value, for which there are really no hard appraisals.
Aiazzi: The legislature has limited the sales tax [contribution] to be no more than 50 percent of the cost of the project. Local taxpayers of Washoe County pay about 70 percent of the sales tax collected. Visitors pay the rest. If half of the trench’s cost is about $100 million, that means local taxpayers would contribute about $70 million. If you go out on the street and ask people, few of them would know that the sales tax has already been implemented for two years. That’s how little impact it has.
RN&R: Are you worried about the mitigation costs for digging 2.1 miles below existing rails next to a buried oil pipeline that must be relocated at public expense?
Aiazzi: Engineers know how to do their job. I get on planes every day. I cross bridges every day. I take BART under the San Francisco Bay. I feel these are all problems that need to be mitigated and I’m confident they can be. We’re just talking about the price.
RN&R: What about contaminated water making its way to the Truckee River?
Aiazzi: Long before the railroad project, we already found out that there’s contaminated water there. All of us are paying money on our water bill to take care of that. I ask people, “Does that mean we shouldn’t clean it up when we can? Isn’t that our responsibility as a government?” I don’t think we should ignore [environmental problems] because they’re underground.
Galloway: If this trench leaks, years down the road, due to imperfect seals or accumulated damage from a train wreck or seismic incidents, the taxpayers will have to pay money to treat the water before it goes into the Truckee River. Reno environmental attorney Richard Harris pointed out that there is evidence that an earthquake fault extends under the proposed trench.
RN&R: Some business owners in the vicinity of trench construction are worried about going out of business during the four years of construction. Is this project helping or hurting these people?
Galloway: No one has argued that they won’t be hurt. And they assure me they will be.
Aiazzi: It depends on the business. I think having a couple hundred construction workers driving by my bar or restaurant would certainly improve my business. People may have to go out of their way one block for a few months. But at no time will access be shut down project-wide to pedestrian or vehicular access. We spent four years trying to get and keep small business downtown. We’re not going to stop now.
RN&R: So why the controversy over your point of view?
Aiazzi: I think there are legitimate concerns by members of the City Council and the public at large. It’s my belief that this is more about politics than what’s good for the community. There are a few people out there that tried to use the railroad project as a way to get into office. And the voters chose not to elect them.
Galloway: I think it’s unfortunate that some members of the council locked themselves into support for this project a couple of years ago. I hope that’s not the case with the council now. I think Reno staff has to defend having spent $10 million on a bad idea.