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River and Rail Relations Sputter Along, Safety Cited as a Concern

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Following the approval of the City of Los Angeles' Locally Preferred Plan to revitalize 11 miles of the L.A. River, one important question comes to mind--Will the City finally be able to buy Piggyback Yard? And the answer is no. The refusal of Union Pacific to sell the land deprives the LPP of 113 acres of land, the largest parcel for development along the River. This issue is indicative of the history between river and rail stakeholders, which has been rocky and has left little room for discussion and cooperation. As river revitalization efforts move forward, rail companies and public agencies continue to plan major initiatives that could impede its progress, but could also provide opportunities for river and rail interests to cooperate on projects and move towards improving relations.

The differing goals of the two groups has been polarizing--one of which is to move goods and passengers while contributing greatly to the economy, and the other is creating an urban oasis in a time of increasing environmental degradation. A report released earlier this year by the Urban Land Institute of Los Angeles called for the need for cooperation amongst rail and river stakeholders. The report, "Paths to Partnership: Nurturing L.A.'s River and Rail Vitality", recommends an independent third party bring the stakeholders together during the complex process of river redevelopment.

"The report served as the mechanism that brought the groups together to meet each other. I know there have been hurt feelings in relation to projects that were ongoing, so I think it was a positive sign that they came," said Jonathan Nettler, Director at ULI, referring to a luncheon involving stakeholders that happened shortly after the release of the report. "It was great having everybody talking very abstractly about lofty goals, but to build the real relationships necessary and to solve the complex challenges brought about by river revitalization, it was necessary to get people working together on concrete projects."

The relationship between stakeholders has been rocky, but despite Union Pacific's refusal to sell Piggyback Yard, there is hope for smoother future collaborations. Photo by KCET.
The relationship between stakeholders has been rocky, but despite Union Pacific's refusal to sell Piggyback Yard, there is hope for smoother future collaborations. |  KCET.

According to the Southern California Association of Governments, port traffic is expected to triple by 2035 and will rely on Southern California's freight rail system to transport products to other parts of the state and country. Metrolink, Amtrak, Union Pacific, Metro Rail, and BNSF Railway are all operating trains or performing maintenance in Los Angeles, most of which is concentrated near Union Station in Downtown. One concern that has been echoed amongst rail stakeholders is the issue of public safety near its active rail lines, said Lupe Valdez, Director of Public Relations at Union Pacific.

"The focus for Union Pacific for any activity that happens adjacent to our property, is to ensure that the public is safe. I think there may be an opportunity for stakeholders to work together as these plans progress and as the L.A. River becomes a destination, to ensure that the infrastructure creates safety barriers to make sure that people don't find themselves at places that they shouldn't be, like railroad tracks," said Valdez. She believes that UP's new local presence can help improve relations. "Until ten years ago there wasn't really that local presence and that's made a huge difference, having individuals that can participate and work with different groups especially with the City of Los Angeles and other stakeholders of the L.A. River."

Despite efforts echoed by many rail companies to ensure public safety, advocates have spoken out against many rail development projects near the river. Friends of the Los Angeles River Board of Directors have voted unanimously to push for an alternate route that would take the High Speed Rail away from the river. They believe it would further cut off local communities' access to the river as well as make the goal of a continuous greenway along the river harder to attain. River advocates and environmentalists have also spoken out against the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Rail Project to expand rail track for the delivery of crude oil along the river. They say the trains' highly combustible cargo--which are commonly referred to as "bomb trains"--puts the river and local communities at risk of explosions and oil spills.

The safety of pedestrians near the rail is a primary concern for both rail and river parties though studies show that safe corridors along the rails is possible. Photo by KCET.
The safety of pedestrians near the rail is a primary concern for both rail and river parties though studies show that safe corridors along the rails is possible. |  KCET.

"The rails have been opposed to any public use of their land. The Piggyback Yard has been there since the late 19th century and we think they've come far enough into the 21st century. We think its time to retire that old franchise and turn the land over to the public," said Lewis Macadams of FoLAR. "The approval of the LPP was the beginning of a long term change from an industrial central city [...] re-industrializing part of the city is not a winning proposition. The future is for people is to live and recreate in the central city."

Southern California residents are all too familiar with train accidents, where more than four accidents have happened in the past year. In February, a Metrolink commuter train hit a truck in Oxnard, leaving more than 50 people injured. Although ensuring public safety near active rails is an important facet of it's operations, it's not always guaranteed, which could pose safety risks for the city's Greenway 2020 plan to create a continuous non-motorized transportation corridor along the 32 miles of river within city limits and to incorporate recreational trails along all 51 miles of the river by 2020. The report provides case studies where public safety near active rails was not compromised and proved to be a successful collaboration between rail companies and trail advocates. A recent study by the Rails to Trails Conservancy identified more than 161 trails located near active rail lines throughout the U.S.

The report provides an overview of rail plans which includes:

Metro's $350 million Southern California Interconnecter Project would install four sections of track to allow Amtrak and Metrolink trains to run south through Union Station, where they currently dead-end. Metro may add one or two stations to the Red or Purple Line in the Arts District off of Santa Fe Avenue along the banks of the river. Possible sites for stations include 6th Street and 4th Street.

Union Pacific Railroad
The company has no plans of selling the LATC site (Piggyback Yard). Valdez has echoed UP's previous comments regarding LATC by saying that although they do not plan on selling the parcel for a long time, maybe 25 years from now, if UP no longer needs the parcel, they will be open to negotiations with the city. The report states the company is planning on a $100 million modernization project to the rail yard with an emphasis on future growth.

High Speed Rail
A number of alternatives to connect Los Angeles to Sylmar, and on to Palmdale, are under consideration. A March 2011 supplemental alternative analysis included engineering options for five subsections, including Los Angeles' Union Station, between Union Station and the Metrolink Central Maintenance Facility (CMF) at Taylor Yard and between Metrolink CMF and State Route 2. The segment between Union Station and Metrolink CMF has brought up concerns that the construction would impact the Rio de Los Angeles State Park at Taylor Yard. The segment between Metrolink CMF and SR2 has also raised concern over the impact construction would have on Rio de Los Angeles State Park, which would entail a bored tunnel beneath the park and partially covered trench that would follow the San Fernando road.

Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery
Not listed in the report is the proposed Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery project which would expand the rail track for the delivery of crude oil by 6,915 feet east on the Union Pacific rail mainline. Advocates argue that the trains pose major risks to the communities and environment that they pass through. The trains are proposed to pass through Downtown along the L.A. River.

The report recommends that rail and river interests in Los Angeles choose a project that can be used as a case study to "promote collaboration and comprehensive engagement." ULI will be holding a meeting next month, hosted by the Southern California Association of Governments, that will bring together rail and river stakeholders, as well as city representatives, to discuss projects that are in development and that can be adopted as a pilot for collaboration.

Photo by KCET.
Photo by KCET.

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