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ACTC holds off on reversing opposition to railroad line abandonment

Monday, March 24, 2008

By Raheem Hosseini - Jerry Budrick

A piercing ring squealed for a few ear-splitting minutes, the result of an emergency door being opened at the County Administration Center before last week's Amador County Transportation Commission meeting. Long after the alarm had been silenced, transportation commissioners heeded the warning sounds of local history buffs hoping to keep the Amador Foothill Railroad Line intact.

Commissioners were being asked to reverse their 2005 opposition to the rail line abandonment process Sierra Pacific Industries is in the midst of undertaking. As ACTC Assistant Planner Sean Rabe explained, rehabilitating the rail lines for passenger or freight use would require exorbitant capital investments that made either prospect no longer realistic.

A 1993 study by Transportation Marketing Services Inc. estimated that turning the rail line into a passenger transit facility would cost somewhere between $105.5 million and $139.3 million, with annual operating costs around $487,000.

"Those didn't include escalation (figures), so you can imagine the costs associated now," Rabe said.

The 1993 study also concluded that ridership for the service would be relatively low.

Rehabilitating the track for freight use also posed challenges. SPI has no intention of turning the line into a freight carrier and a 2005 study by the Woodside Consulting Group showed an initial capital investment of $3.2 million would be needed.

Rather than remain opposed to the removal of the rail line and associated structures in the Martell area, Rabe said the county could use the alignment of the railroad line to build a cross connection through the Martell Business Park that could cut down on highway congestion and surrounding traffic, especially if plans for a housing subdivision along Wicklow Way in Martell continue to move forward.

As they had been doing the past few weeks, representatives from the Amador County Historical Society were lobbying government officials to stand between Sierra Pacific Industries and the company's plans to strip the railroad of its tracks and structures in the Martell area. They had seen only modest success, with the Ione City Council the only local governing body to issue a resolution of support. A similar resolution failed to pass in Sutter Creek, while the Jackson City Council postponed its consideration until a future meeting. Failing outright support, historical society members were asking for a little more time.

"They're doing their job. They're hired to do a job," said historical society president Charlene Buckley of SPI consultants. "But sometimes you need to go to the big man."

In this case, the "big man" is SPI Chief Executive Officer Red Emerson, who Buckley hopes will be receptive to some sort of compromise.

Both the California State Historic Preservation Office and the federal Surface Transportation Board currently have a signed draft agreement with SPI, requiring the company to photo-document the historic structures of the rail line prior to any removal. Following receipt of a historical research report on the rail line from SPI, the state office has 60 days to comment.

Commissioner Louis Boitano, a county supervisor, advised Buckley to write the federal board. "The Surface Transportation Board has the ultimate say and what we decide will have no impact on that," he said.

But if history is any indication, getting help from the board may be difficult, suggested Commissioner Richard Forster, also a county supervisor. "They act and they act with disregard to anyone not in Washington," he said. Forster suggested the historical society would have better luck with the state preservation office.

Buckley said the historical society is hoping to engage the state and federal agencies, as well as Emerson, to broker some sort of understanding.

More time was what the historical society got, with commissioners agreeing to table the item until a decision came from the state preservation office and Surface Transportation Board. There was a rush to second Forster's motion, which passed unanimously.

Earlier in the day, the Amador County Technical Advisory Committee also dealt with a matter related to SPI, which owns a substantial portion of what is known as the Martell Triangle, an area of land formerly the site of a large lumber milling operation, now home to numerous businesses, industries and county offices. The sole agenda item concerned a proposed amendment to the Martell Master Plan. The applicant proposes changing land uses in parts of the project area from manufacturing to planned development, reducing the office/research and development area, and expanding the commercial uses in the north-east portion of the plan area.

The Technical Advisory Committee, chaired by Amador County Environmental Health Director Mike Israel, worked its way through the 17 factors on the environmental checklist contained in the California Environmental Quality Act.

Many factors, such as biological resources and mineral resources, were determined to have less than significant impact on the project. A few factors, however, have been determined to have impacts significant enough to either mitigate or study further.

Aesthetics was the first factor to be deemed worthy of consideration. Lighting and its effect upon flights into and out of Westover Field, directly across Highway 49 from the project area, will have to be considered in plans for changes to the Martell Master Plan.

When the land use/planning factor came up, county Airport Advisory Committee member Debra Dunn raised a concern about increased commercial activity in the airport's flight path, which crosses over one corner of the project area.

All factors seemed mitigatable until the checklist reached transportation/traffic, which brought Amador County Transportation Commission Executive Director Charles Field into the conversation. "ACTC's position is that a focused EIR should be done for this project," Field said. The committee agreed, recommending that a focused EIR on transportation/traffic be prepared.

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