Monday, 8:54 am, it is a normal commute into the downtown, headed westbound on Fifth Street. Up ahead I see the flashing lights and the gates down but no train yet. I head down to Third Street where I can already see the train on the tracks parallel to Second Street.
At 8:56 am, the traffic crossing the tracks at Third Street is waiting as a train slowly heads northbound on the tracks. Already five minutes into my stop, the train begins to slow until it completely stops. 9:01 am, the train comes to a dead stop. Now we wait. At this point, the train has covered the entirety of downtown, bringing all east-west traffic headed out the downtown to a screaming halt.
Five minutes go by, and cars start trying to bail out of there – where they are headed, it is hard to know. Bicyclists dangerously pick up their bicycles and head through the opening between the cars. More get off their bicycles and wait.
Ten minutes go by, no sign of movement. I begin to text city leaders, mostly for kicks.
Fifteen minutes go by and, finally, the train begins to move, slowly. It is 9:16. At 9:19, a car attempts to drive on the right to get to an alleyway. A police car flashes their lights and pulls them over.
Finally at 9:20, the train clears the Third Street crossing. Cars start to move, but it’s not quite over. The lights blink, the chimes go, the gates come down – is the train backing up? No, false alarm, a few seconds later the gates go up and traffic resumes. Downtown Davis is shut down for 25 minutes on a Monday morning.
There has been discussion already about Yolo rail relocation. Tonight at the city council meeting, Rob White, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, will update the city council on the Yolo Rail Realignment Partnership.
In his staff report, he notes, “Davis is working in partnership with Yolo County and the cities of West Sacramento and Woodland to explore the potential for relocation of the rail lines in the downtowns of each city and realignment for a more effective regional goods movement. There are also opportunities for shared flood protection and water resource enhancements. The partnership is applying for a federal grant to study the economic benefits to the jurisdictions and the region.”
It is a long process, that over the next 12 months includes submitting a request for a U.S. EDA (Economic Development Administration) Tech Assistance Planning Grant and a two-year plan of identifying funding sources to implement that grant.
The city currently sees rail relocation as the opportunity to free up valuable land in the heart of the town for possible development. But there is something more to it than just that. Davis has a vision of becoming more than just a small college town – it wants the downtown to be a regional destination, it wants to be a center for tech-transfer, high-tech start ups, and university spinoffs – but how can Davis be taken seriously when its downtown is effectively shutdown early on a work day by trains?
At one point, the idea of relocation was a pipe dream, however, as early as January, Rob White mentioned that there has been considerable discussion countywide about the rail line relocation project and he said that it is “moving faster than anyone expected.”
There are, of course, those who oppose such a move as developer driven, but there are also those who are watching closely, given the controversy of transportation of crude oil by rail.
In December of 2012 the City of Benicia was presented with a Land Use Permit Application from the Valero Refining Company who owns and operates an oil refinery located in Benicia, California.
Valero is proposing the “Crude by Rail Project” which would allow the refinery to receive a larger proportion of its crude oil deliveries by rail car.
According to Mike Webb, Director of Community Development & Sustainability who made a staff presentation in March, the city of Benicia is currently in the review process. It is preparing an Environmental Impact Report that is expected to be released for public review and comment in the next month. Once the report is released it is assumed that there will be a 45-day comment period, and hearings at the Benicia Planning Commission and City Council are likely.
In February, Davis citizens Lynne Nittler, Milton Kalish, and Matt Biers-Ariel wrote an article for the Vanguard where they laid out some of the concerns community members have expressed over the potential dangers that come with transporting crude oil by train car.
They stated, “In the last year there have been 10 major rail accidents involving oil trains in the U.S. and Canada. Last July, 47 people perished in a massive fireball when a train containing Bakken crude derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Four more oil trains have derailed in Canada since then. In November, a train carrying the same Bakken crude derailed in Alabama, possibly caused by trestle tracks that collapsed under the weight of the heavy tank cars. Twelve of the cars exploded, fortunately not in a populated area. In the last week of December, another 18 tank cars carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded just outside of Casselton, North Dakota, forcing the town to evacuate to avoid the plumes of toxic smoke from the ensuing fires that burned for more than a day. Another oil train derailed and exploded in New Brunswick days later.”
On January 27 over 50 people attended the Natural Resource Commission meeting where this topic was addressed. During public comment on Tuesday night, NRC member Allan Pryor stated, ”The NRC had the largest turnout in over 3-4 years over this issue, the chambers were packed. We have never had a crowd so large, and they were vocal and unanimous in their opposition.”
After over an hour of public comment during their January meeting, NRC members voted to approve a list of recommendations to council. Among the recommendations was a request that the city of Davis submit formal comments to the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Benicia Valero Project when it is released for public comment.
In March, the Vanguard reported that Mayor Krovoza directed staff to prepare a resolution stating that the city of Davis would oppose crude oil by rail transport through our community.
Councilmember Brett Lee expressed concerns that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open ended to have the impact they were hoping for. He asked the mayor, “Do you really think the railroad is going to stop transporting oil on the railroad line because the Davis City Council says we don’t want it passing through our community?”
He continued, “I think a more effective way would be to focus on the safety aspects so that our community is protected and other communities are protected.” Councilmember Lee clarified that he was not in favor of these cars coming through our community, and went on to say that he did not believe that having a symbolic gesture “excuses us or take us off the hook for dealing with the public safety issue.”
Ultimately, Mayor Krovoza put forth a motion, that was seconded by Lee, which directed staff to begin preparation of a resolution whereby the city of Davis would oppose crude by rail transport through our community due to public safety concerns until further consideration, including understanding of risks and needed mitigation measures.
As these issues continue to evolve, the issue of rail relocation takes on much more urgency. Davis needs space to develop economically and the tracks running north-south take up prime real estate for those endeavors. But, mostly, Davis needs to be a community that no longer has to shut down when a train inexplicably decides to stop in the middle of traffic for 25 minutes on a work day.
—David M. Greenwald reporting