The Arizona State Land Department is reviewing two reports of consultants charged with preparing an engineering assessment and an economic assessment of the possible sale of 900 acres of state trust land near Picacho Peak to Union Pacific Railroad for a proposed switching yard.
Maria Baier, land commissioner, said the two drafts would be finalized after review by the department staff.
“We have to make sure the project is a beneficial use of the trust land beyond the immediate sale to Union Pacific,” Baier said. “We want to maximize revenue to the trust, but also be sure that in making the sale, we’re not making all the other state trust land nearby unsalable, foreclosing on opportunities for those other lands.”
The State Trust Department manages a total of 1.2 million acres of trust land in Pinal County, Baier noted, but the other parcels in the vicinity of the proposed land for sale to Union Pacific are comprised of several sections of land. A section of land is 640 acres.
“The economic assessment looks at a couple of sections in the vicinity that could be affected by freeway access, water supply, wastewater capacity, drainage costs and internal transportation needs,” Baier pointed out. “These are big ticket items where we need to understand their costs and their benefits, and how the project affects those costs and benefits.”
The Union Pacific (UP) switching yard would be located northeast of Union Pacific’s current right of way and west of W. Kodial Road, across from the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch in Picacho. The property being sought is approximately six miles long and about one mile wide.
Zoe Richmond, UP’s public affairs director for Arizona, said, “We need something longer instead of wider because we need room for locomotives and trains to decelerate and stop safely, and then accelerate to get back onto the main line.” She continued, “While Arizona has a lot of land available, there’s not a lot of flat available land adjacent to our railroad tracks.”
Richmond noted that Union Pacific has been interested in securing the plot of land since 2005, but doesn’t yet have a date set for when construction would start.
“Part of not having a construction date is due to the fact we need the land in order to have the project,” she said. “We have funding available to purchase the land when the State Land Department puts it up for sale. It is important to first acquire the land and then do the design and planning on the project so when the economy turns around we have a shovel-ready project.”
Union Pacific originally sought approval of the State Land Department to purchase 1,463 acres for the switching yard and received the support of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors. However, after complaints from area residents that the switching yard would cause air and water pollution, the railroad reduced the size of its land application to 900 acres.
Richmond noted that the land would have to be appraised in order to determine a purchase price.
Baier estimated that the State Land Department would probably decide whether the land would be sent to auction before the end of this year.
“But if there were to be an auction, it wouldn’t happen in 2012,” she said. “It would be 2013 or beyond. We can appreciate the vigor that exists in some parts of the community for this project, but our job is to make sure the trust is taken care of.”
David Snider, Pinal County supervisor for District 3, said the board of supervisors has been working with the community and the State Land Department on a regular basis concerning the UP project.
“About a year ago there was a series of meetings where specific questions were posed to us by the State Land Department and we actively sought the answers to those questions and continue to stand ready to work with both sides toward a successful resolution of the project,” Snider said. “We understand the issues the State Land Department deems important, just as we’ve come to understand Union Pacific’s perspective as well. At a staff level, we’re providing information to both.”
Snider noted that the county considers the proposed rail yard as an important part of a transportation hub, complementing the Interstate 10 and Interstate 8 highways and the Pinal County Air Park.
“We are active proponents of this kind of vision in working with local economic development organizations and local governments to help the county grow as the economy improves,” Snider said. “This project can be an economic engine that can help drive the economy of Pinal County, the state and the entire Southwest region.”