Union Pacific’s decision last week to move a planned rail switching yard in Tempe highlights the power of the bully pulpit to influence actions of the nation’s largest and most powerful railroad company.
City officials learned of Union Pacific’s intent to build a staging yard between St. Luke’s Hospital and Tempe High School shortly before construction was to begin. The city was alarmed by the prospect of rail cars stacking up in a residential area where students pass through on foot and nearby homeowners could be subject to new types of noise pollution.
Sweeping independence granted to the railroad by Congress more than a century ago meant neither Tempe nor the state could intervene to relocate or even delay the project. That didn’t deter Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman and other officials, who believed Union Pacific had other options.
While avoiding mud-slinging and hyperbole, Hallman called attention to the situation and publicly asked the railroad to select a safer site. The city identified an alternative location in an industrial area further to the south.
Tempe was aided with additional lobbying by members of the Arizona Corporation Commission, led by Kris Mayes and Bill Mundell, who could draw on that agency’s previous experience in regulating railroads located solely within the state.
Union Pacific was understandably reluctant to abandon its original plans. The railroad had spent months studying possible spots for a new switching yard to improve the flow of its trains through the East Valley. Plenty of money already had been spent on designing a staging area at selected location, while the alternative site is smaller and only had the capacity for holding 28 cars instead of 40.
But to the company’s credit, top railroad brass came here from their headquarters in Omaha, Neb., to see the options up close and to hear the concerns of Tempe officials in person. In the end, Union Pacific decided that easing the community’s worries was more important than the loss of some money or holding stubbornly on to the prerogative of its first choice.
This outcome should be a lesson for Valley politicians. We can work together
constructively, instead of divisively, to solve problems even when the odds are stacked against us.