High-stakes trench-digging

Reno seeks support for its big dig by inviting residents to help hash out devilish details for the proposed ReTRAC project

It’s not so much the trench, but the temporary shoofly proposed to be built about 30 feet from their home that bothers Bernie and Jan Clark of Reno.

It’s not so much the trench, but the temporary shoofly proposed to be built about 30 feet from their home that bothers Bernie and Jan Clark of Reno.

Photo by David Robert

Stakeholder meeting information is available at cityofreno.net. A combined meeting of all stakeholder groups will be at 6 p.m. July 25. Call 326-6315 for details.

A storm drain would run through Fred Schwamb’s office at Far West Steel Fabricators Inc.

“My building will have to go,” Schwamb said from his desk at the business on Morrill Street. “The drain exits right where I’m sitting.”

Last week, city workers stopped by Far West Steel with the plans for the proposed 2.25-mile train trench through downtown Reno. Schwamb, who moved into the building in 1985, wasn’t exactly surprised. His daughter and son-in-law, who run Reno Forklift in a nearby building, are moving out in two weeks. They’re taking their business to a new facility.

Far West Steel and Reno Forklift are among the 24 businesses that will lose buildings to make way for the trench, assuming it’s approved. Another 29 businesses will be relocated during construction.

Schwamb, who’s lived in the area since 1936, has mixed feelings about the project, which is expected to cost $242 million and take nearly three years.

“I’m not going to stand in the way of progress,” he said. “It’ll put a hardship on me. But something has to be done.”

What will Schwamb do with Far West Steel?

“Move it, or something,” he said.

When the city decided to move forward with plans to dig the trench to lower railroad tracks through downtown Reno, it also decided that it needed disgruntled citizens to buy in, many of whom were (and still are) critical of the concept.

“We want to know what’s in it for us,” said Lloyd Scott, group leader for the West End ReTRAC Stakeholder Group. “So far, what we get out of this project is zip—dust and our businesses interfered with. We get to pay for something that has no real benefit, that no one seems to want.”

So to help these folks see the light at the end of the tunnel—"That light is a train,” joked city engineer Mark DeMuth—the city established stakeholder groups for the west end, the east end and the downtown portion of the project.

During group discussions mediated by DeMuth and city public relations representative Gail Conners, the stakeholders were to prioritize concerns to take to the bargaining table. This makes critics into “partners” as the city drafts bids to go out to contractors.

East end
“If you want something, now is the time,” DeMuth told about six east end stakeholders who met in a warm conference room at Bavarian World on Sixth Street. Business owners on the east end, including Schwamb, Bob Edmonds of R Supply Company and Steve Scolari of Ray Heating Company, are concerned about construction impact on business, relocation measures and how property lease contracts with Union Pacific will be handled when the city takes them over.

Low attendance was bothersome. DeMuth said the city would pay for a newspaper ad to invite other stakeholders to attend meetings. Business owners could sign the ad so it wouldn’t appear to be city-sponsored.

“We send out invitations and get them back marked, ‘Refused,’ “ DeMuth said. “We’re not stupid. We know there’s a distrust of the city.”

West end
The meeting of West End ReTRAC Stakeholders at the Gold & Silver Inn was punctuated with horn blasts from a passing train.

“That train doesn’t bother me one iota,” said one longtime resident of the neighborhood. “I could listen to trains all night. I sleep with my window open.”

“I’d like to see why this is such a great idea,” said David Miles of Sierra RV Rentals. “The city needs to give me a hook. As far as I can tell, this project leaves us with the same as we’ve got, only 30 feet deeper.”

Not that he’s automatically opposed to the project if the value is demonstrated.

“If something good can come out of [the trench], I’m not entirely against it,” Miles said.

The west enders have many concerns, like dropping property values, tourism drop-offs, the claims process for business loss and equal treatment. Since they are in the special tax assessment district like downtowners, they’d like the same kinds of perks. If downtown gets buried utility lines, they’d like buried utility lines. Or flower boxes. Or trees. Or curb cuts.

Jan Clark, 66, and Bernie Clark, 60, live in and rent apartments in buildings that aren’t far from the tracks, just off Ralston Street. A temporary shoofly, used for a minimum of 14 months to maintain Union Pacific’s train traffic during trench construction, would come wtihin about 30 feet of their home, which is more than 100 years old.

“Our biggest concern is our pipes, plumbing and electrical,” Bernie Clark said. “And air quality. My wife’s on oxygen 24 hours a day. We know there will be tremendous dirt flying through air. It’s going to be bad.”

Clark has long had problems maintaining his property with vibration from tracks that are more than 100 feet away. The shoofly would bring the tracks practically into their yard.

“29 feet? They’ve got to be joking,” he said.

The Downtown ReTRAC Stakeholders met in a well-air conditioned convention room at the Sands. Suited representatives from the casinos and other downtown properties plucked Calistogas from buckets of ice.

The meeting was expedient. Group agreements were distributed and reviewed. Representatives from Nevada Bell and Sierra Pacific were invited to brief the casinos on how construction might affect phone and power. Those casinos on the north side of the tracks will have outages. Casinos and properties on the south side wouldn’t be affected.

“So it’s good to be Fitzgerald’s,” one observer noted.

“For once,” another joked.

Some background: Attorneys for Fitzgerald’s filed a lawsuit arguing that the casino shouldn’t be made to pay nearly $444,000 in special assessment district taxes to help fund construction of the trench. A district judge ruled in Fitzgerald’s favor, agreeing that the tax is more than any expected benefit the casino might receive from the trench. Especially since that oh-so-near temporary shoofly could cost the casino serious business, possibly forcing it to shut down, the Fitz folks argued.

Other downtown concerns include getting dirt out, keeping tourists in and doing special events.

DeMuth cautioned against too many limitations on construction times. One solution may be two 10-hour construction shifts per day, with four hours off for repairs and maintenance daily, he said. Down in the trench, a machine that looks “like a front-end loader at the end of a crane” will scoop dirt into trucks. Two scoops per truck; about 700 trucks per day. That’s planned to correspond with traffic lights: one truck per traffic light cycle.

“Remember, everything you restrict [the contractor] from doing, it’s going to take him longer to do it,” DeMuth said. “When he’s got bodies moving dirt as fast as they can, you want him to move it.”

The ‘acquired’
“I’m pleased that they’re having these meetings,” said Andrea Pelter of Reno Ironworks. “But there’s no group for the—don’t call them ‘condemned'—'acquired’ or ‘temporarily acquired.’ We’re in no man’s land.”

She’s not worried about signage or noise or dust.

“But we’re desperately worried about where we’re going to move,” she said. A stakeholders group should be formed to unify those businesses that’ll be bulldozed or relocated, she said.

"[This lack] makes the city look, unfortunately, like they don’t want us to get together. We need to be represented. We have the greatest stakehold.”

Pelter doesn’t want to appear critical of the city or of ReTRAC. But the lack of communication is sending people to the yellow pages to look for attorneys. And a bunch of lawsuits, she said, is the last the thing the city needs.

“A lot of the people raising heck don’t know the issues. They have lots of anxiety," she said. "They need to have answers."