Why is Davis Working on Yolo Freight Rail Relocation?

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by Rob White

Yesterday, it was announced that a federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant will be awarded for the first tangible step in many years on the Yolo Freight Rail Relocation project. Whether you agree or disagree with the project, gathering data to make decisions is always prudent… and that is what this grant will allow the Cities of Davis. West Sacramento and Woodland, Yolo County and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) to do.

Various collections of these public agencies have been discussing different concepts and parts of this project for several decades. But for the first time, all five agencies (and several other peripheral agencies) have come together in a consistent approach to solving several significant issues.

The issues include (but are not limited to): 1) flood control (primarily in Woodland and east Davis); 2) removal of at-grade crossings in Davis, West Sacramento and Woodland; and 3) relocation of the 2nd Street switching yard in Davis.

Potential opportunities that would result from this project could also include: A) viable rail connections to underserved areas of commerce in Woodland, West Sacramento, and north of Davis; B) rejoined blocks of land in downtown Davis and Woodland that could be redeveloped; C) potential for a bikeway connection from North Davis to Woodland; and D) increased flood protection from a new raised berm track alignment to the east of Davis and Woodland.

As part of this grant, each city and Yolo County will be working with their communities to determine opportunities and challenges from a potential relocation. The grant specifies outreach activities will be conducted regarding the project, especially as it relates to economic development opportunities for each city and the County. And several studies will be undertaken that assess the economic development potentials based data while providing a roadmap for next steps.

It can sometimes be frustrating that there is a lack of information about these types of projects, but since the project impacts various stakeholders (both positively and negatively) staff for each agency have to be sensitive to the needs of the community while still respecting the rights of those involved in the project discussions. All of our involved agencies have been as proactive as possible in releasing information that allows our communities to be involved in the dialogue without exposing the project to unintended vulnerabilities.

To demonstrate that this project does not serve any one community more than the others, Davis is taking lead on the economic development studies because we have the most to gain from a realignment of the north-south tracks out of our downtown. Other agencies have taken lead on the parts that most specifically impact them, though the benefits will accrue to all communities.

Some have asked why the agencies are not assessing the opportunity to relocate the east-west line from Davis. Though current discussions regarding freight on this line have brought some to question whether our community is best served from a rail line through town, it is ironic that rail service was a primary driver in the founding of Davis(ville).

And the short answer is that the east-west line now serves both commuter and freight rail needs, and there is currently no financial driver that would help pay for that (expensive) relocation. Whereas discussions on the north-south line have seen early indications of willingness for relocation and the financial drivers that would reasonably pay for the project (without requiring the cities or the County to carry the burden) have become aligned.

These financial drivers are borne by significant flood control improvements, new connections for commerce for our county’s industrial areas and better rail service to our region’s ag industries and food processing.

Though there are likely many other reasons for this project to continue to be assessed, the most significant driver for the project is that we have unified collaboration of the five major public agencies and we have willing railroad operators and landowners in the discussion. So maybe a better question is “why wouldn’t we want to assess this opportunity?”

But maybe an equally important outcome from this project effort is that new partnership and collaboration across the agencies has been created. This has given Yolo communities an opportunity to work together on a grand vision that can solve some regional issues while providing opportunities. And that kind of collaborative approach is creating commonalities that help us approach other regional issues with a more holistic view.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are always welcome. My email is rwhite@cityofdavis.org if you choose to email me directly or you can follow me on Twitter @mrobertwhite.

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About The Author

Rob White is the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Davis and was selected as a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Local Innovation. He serves as an ex-officio Board Member for techDAVIS (a local tech entrepreneur industry group), as an executive Board Member for the Innovate North State iHub, and as a Board Member for Hacker Lab and the California Network for Manufacturing Innovation. He is a candidate for the Doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California and has a Masters from USC in Planning and Development and a Bachelors of Science in Geology from Chico State.

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25 thoughts on “Why is Davis Working on Yolo Freight Rail Relocation?”

  1. Alan Miller

    There are governments throughout the country with significant issues of rail-auto conflict – some with 50-100 trains per day. If any town should get federal dollars for a rail relocation there should be a significant need. Some towns have requested such federal dollars for this for decades. The City of Fresno has been trying to move what is now the BNSF rail line out of its downtown for 70 years. That is the BNSF main line, with 12 Amtrak trains and at least a couple of dozen daily mainline freight trains that pass within hundreds of feet of their City Hall and main hospital. There are towns throughout California in need of grade separations or grade crossing improvements that have crossing gates that are down almost as much as they are up.

    What does Davis’ north-south line have? One or two freight trains each direction on the north-south line and some light engine movements. The Woodland line east over the Fremont Trestle has much less traffic than that. West Sacramento’s line that they want moved is a rail lead to an industrial switching park. West Sacramento’s project isn’t even connected to the Davis and Woodland projects. West Sacramento is attempting to lump all these projects together and get everyone on board to make their long-time dream of removing the rails from the east side of town a reality for their redevelopment plans.

    Solving the rail portion of the flood control issue can be accomplished with a $4-5 million dollar rail connection and a haulage agreement. So-called Yolo Rail Relocation, in its entirety, is an incredibly expensive project, easily over the nine-figure line (hundreds of millions). That means federal dollars. Federal dollars mean strings, and usually a local match. This is an incredibly complex project, with three railroads and several land owners. That means lots of money, and lots of staff time, for a probable failure.

    Garamendi is telling local politicians in the County what they want to hear. This wastes your tax dollars by encouraging the spending of large sums on consultants to study this project, a project that almost certainly will be denied by congress. Yolo Rail Relocation is the poster child for boondoggle. What was announced today was a grant, for a study, a study on economic development. You can bet, just like the original study West Sac study that ignored low cost alternatives, this study will also tell everyone what they want to hear, and give them what they want to tell everyone. The BSers are BSing the BSers in a cluster of BS.

    West Sacramento has a valid project. That is a valid project to open up east-side land by moving the rail connection to the west side of town. The proposed removal of the Fremont Trestle for flood control is a separate project, solved by a relative simple and cheap rail connection. Moving the rail line from Woodland to Davis is entirely unnecessary and massively expensive. Hitching these projects together into a giant Yolo gift boondoggle basket is nonsensical. West Sacramento has been trying to get their rail lead access moved to connect from the west side of town for twenty years with no success. Keep trying West Sacramento, on your own, and good luck. I mean that.

    Garamendi, Yolo County, and the City of Davis are doing jigs and telling us of all the joys of moving multiple rail lines that carry only one to two round-trip trains, six-days-a-week, on a line that carries very little flammable or hazardous cargo. Instead our politicians should be pounding the halls of Sacramento demanding that a rail bypass be built around Davis for all oil trains. Why are they supporting a grant and study and talks on a N/S rail bypass instead? Additional hazardous and flammable cargo that runs through Davis now could all be diverted southeast of Davis. Such a bypass route would be about the same length as the N/S line but could remove the threat of an oil train derailment/spill/explosion that is a very real threat to the people of Davis.

    Have we lost our minds, and our priorities? If our politicians are going to do our town good, instead of having Davis playing the puppet to West Sacramento’s and mega-developer’s schemes, by moving an lightly used grain/lumber/line, instead demand that they build a bypass that will move all hazardous/flammable freight outside the Davis City limits. That’s a bypass I can get behind.

    1. Matt Williams

      Alan, as I said last night when you posted this same information, you have provided above the most thorough explanation of your position that you have ever provided. It is orders of magnitude better than anything you have said before. Thank you for taking the time to do it.

      It also illuminates some clear areas for further dialogue. 95% of what you have covered has to do with the transportation rationale for proposing this project. The problem with that approach is that improvements in rail transportation are not the driving force behind this project. For that matter, development interests are not behind this project either, whether in West Sacramento, or Woodland or Davis. The driving force behind this project is (A) the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, a State of California and US Army Corps of Engineers initiative that kicked into gear after Hurricane Katrina wreaked massive destruction in New Orleans. All the rail benefits and all the development opportunities are a tiny drop in the bucket when compared to FEMA’s actuarial calculation of the $5 billion risk associated with a flood event that overtops the East Side Sacramento Levee.

      But the actuarial flood risk is only part of the story. Wood Rogers has modeled the inundation caused by a 25 year flood, and that would result in a three-month shutdown of I-5 from the Sacramento Airport to the Colusa County Line. Can you imagine what the impact of such a shutdown would be to the Northern California economy?

      You have verbally said in the past that “solving the rail portion of the flood control issue can be accomplished with a $4-5 million dollar rail connection and a haulage agreement.” I have asked you to flesh out that inexpensive solution in past comment threads, but to-date you haven’t done so. Could you do so now? I am sure that there are lots of Davis, Yolo County and Northern California residents who would love to know how a $5 billion risk can be permanently eliminated for $4-$5 million.

      1. DavisBurns

        to the best of my knowledge, the emergency evacuation route out of Sacramento is across the causeway (speaking of floods). Can you imagine how few people could get across the causeway before it became a parking lot?

  2. Tia Will

    Thanks for the post Alan. I am sure that the majority of residents of Davis are as ignorant of the different roles of the two rail lines through town ( east-west vs north-south) until you very patiently pointed out the differences to me. Don’t stop writing and presenting at CC. For the entertainment value of course, but far more importantly for the factual content.

    1. SODA

      Alan, I too enjoy your ‘entertainment’ but please don’t let that overshadow bringing expertise to the issues you excel in….I appreciate your factual, frank comments and think they are important for our community dialogue.

    2. Matt Williams

      I concur wholeheartedly Tia. Alan shares very good rail transportation information; however, since the value to our society of this project is the $5 billion flood risk mitigation, Alan’s overwhelming focus on the rail components, while giving short shrift to the flood control aspects is presenting only “half the story.” I hope he engages the $5 billion “value” in his future contributions.

      With that said, the $5 billion actuarial flood risk is only part of the story. Wood Rogers has modeled the inundation caused by a 25 year flood event, and that would result in a three-month shutdown of all the lanes of I-5 from the Sacramento Airport to the Colusa County Line. Can you imagine what the impact of such a shutdown would be to the Northern California economy?

      Alan has said in his posts here that “solving the rail portion of the flood control issue can be accomplished with a $4-5 million dollar rail connection and a haulage agreement.” I have asked him to flesh out that inexpensive solution in past comment threads, but to-date he hasn’t done so. I ask him and I hope you join me in asking him to do so now? I am sure that there are lots of Davis, Yolo County and Northern California residents who would love to know how a $5 billion risk can be permanently eliminated for $4-$5 million.

  3. Barack Palin

    “rail service was a primary driver in the founding of Davis(ville).”

    Thank you. The downtown train station is a staple of our town. I’m okay with moving the north/south freight line but the east/west passenger line should remain right where it is. It’s a beautiful station and what this town was bulit around.

  4. hpierce

    Rob… your information re: primary flood control benefits of removing existing trestle is incorrect (NOT Woodland and East or South Davis). Feel free to contact me @ hortensepierce@yahoo.com for background and more accurate information. Matt W is also familiar with the flood control situation.

    1. Matt Williams

      The issues include (but are not limited to): 1) flood control (primarily in Woodland and east Davis); 2) removal of at-grade crossings in Davis, West Sacramento and Woodland; and 3) relocation of the 2nd Street switching yard in Davis.

      hpierce, I believe Rob’s statement is correct. The flood control mechanisms that this project will impact are (A) the Yolo Bypass Floodway and (B) the Cache Creek Settling Basin.

      The latter is clearly in both the City of Woodland as well as Woodland’s environs. The Yolo Bypass starts in the north in the Woodland environs, and further south is in the environs first to the northeast of Davis, then the east of Davis, then southeast of Davis.

      The flood control benefits are much farther reaching, including the East Side Levee along Natomas and Sacramento, the West Side Levee along West Sacramento, the Yolo Bypass Floodway, Cache Creek in Woodland, and the South Putah Creek Bypass south of Davis.

  5. Frankly

    If the governor had not killed it to give more money to the teachers union, could RDA have been used to contribute to the rail relocation as a way to sweeten the application for federal assistance? Assuming the downtown rail corridor was redeveloped for tax-generating commerce, I think this absolutely could have worked.

    Thank you Governor Brown!

    1. Don Shor

      I don’t think most of the land under discussion is in the redevelopment district. If it was, some of those RDA funds might have gone to redeveloping sites in east Davis, where blight actually existed.

      1. hpierce

        East Davis (except maybe a small portion next to the Core) was not in the RDA, so no funding would have been OK.

        There is now a successor mechanism that is on the Governor’s desk. It was in the Bee this past week.

    2. Don Shor

      “If the governor had not killed it to give more money to the teachers union” stop the state from having to backfill the school funds that the RDA’s were siphoning off of local property taxes…
      There we go.

      1. Frankly

        This is BS.

        There was no tax revenue being generated, or there was too little being generated.

        RDA caused the tax revenue to increase, and part of it went to the schools and the rest was used to fund the projects and RDA.

        The teachers unions and the state noted that tax revenue and wanted it for themselves.

        So they raided RDA and took it.

        And now we no longer have RDA.

        The killed a great program that was improving things long-term, only to loot it and cover more of the gross over-payment of government employees.

        You know it. Why do you keep trying to spin it otherwise if not for political convenience?

        1. Don Shor

          Congratulations. Everything you just said is incorrect. Look up “backfill” and see what the state was having to do for the school districts because of the diversion of funds by RDA’s.
          I assume by “gross over-payment of government employees” you mean teachers.
          I’m not spinning anything. I’m setting the record straight when you engage in union-bashing rhetoric and distort the actual basis and behavior of RDA’s.

          1. hpierce

            You neglect the fact that much of the tax increment actually went to Yolo County, as part of the “pass-thru agreement”. Said agreement is all but dead.

          2. Frankly

            Just spin.

            Talk a piece of city land not generating tax revenue and redevelop it using RDA. Schools get some and the country gets some and the city gets some and the rest goes back to fund the program that made it happen. And the program banked dollars to use for the next project and the next project.

            RDA created something from nothing. And yet you spin it as if that something was always there and the schools were entitled to it.

            This type of spin actually does match your political world view to take from those that produce to give to those that don’t.

            But the Governor and the teachers unions wanted ALL the dollars.

            And now there is no useful public-side mechanism for redevelopment.

            But then you might like that since it means less development in general.

  6. DurantFan

    I am sure that the Cannery Park folks appreciate all of your fine efforts to “sweeten up” the western border of their ongoing project. Have they thanked you yet?

    1. Matt Williams

      DurantFan, there are over 15 miles of north-south rail between the Davis Train Station and the north side of Woodland, why is it that you are concentrating all your focus on the 0.5 mile (2,500 feet) along the western border of the Cannery Park site. That is less than 4% of the rail line in question … less than 2% when you consider that a rail line has neighbors to each side.

  7. DavisBurns

    “rail service was a primary driver in the founding of Davis(ville).”

    Rails and rivers (and often both) were always reasons to build communities–it was the transportation network necessary for trade and development. Its interesting to me that we have so many communities adversely impacted by the very lynch pin of their development. We also saw freeways being built that destroyed neighborhood and divided cities. It is an ongoing problem but railroads are the most cost effective means of moving material (and people) and we should be aware that we are likely to become more dependent on them as fuel costs rise–as opposed to truck transport.

    Currently, farmers who have to compete with oil companies shipping Bakken oil are losing the game. Their crops are rotting because the rail lines are at capacity with oil transport. Farmers warned of the problem last spring and they were correct.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/us/grain-piles-up-waiting-for-a-ride-as-trains-move-north-dakota-oil.html?_r=0

    This may be a bit off topic.

  8. darelldd

    Wow. A lot of information here to process. One question that Alan’s post inspires for me: If a N-S bypass is relatively easy, supportable and practical for “oil trains” – why can’t ALL N-S train traffic be bypassed so we can pull up the tracks.

    The problem in Davis isn’t only the trains that apparently only come through a couple of times a day. It is that the tracks, the right of way and the crossing are there EVERY day. They prevent us from implementing several safety and convenience solutions. Our needs may not be as important as some of the other communities you mention (Why did Fresno build their big hospital by the tracks? Or did the tracks come after?), but if a “bypass” is relatively simple, why don’t we bypass all of the tracks that bisect the town?

    Maybe a better question is what’s the difference between a relocation and a bypass? As long as the tracks are removed from the middle of Davis, I don’t much care what it is called.

    I don’t ask this in a contentious manner, I ask this from a position of almost total ignorance of the situation. Be gentle with me.

  9. Topcat

    darelldd wrote: “If a N-S bypass is relatively easy, supportable and practical for “oil trains” – why can’t ALL N-S train traffic be bypassed so we can pull up the tracks. ”

    I think there is a bit of confusion about the rail lines in question. Oil trains would be using the East-West Union Pacific main line through town, NOT the North-South line. I think that Alan is proposing an East-West bypass to the south of town. This is a heavily used Union Pacific main line. The existing east-west line that goes by the station and is used by Amtrak could remain as a passenger line while freight trains could use the bypass.

    The North South line is a very lightly used branch line. There is no way that it could be economically justified to build a bypass for that line unless it was some sort of flood control levee project.

  10. Alan Miller

    Well, this sucks. I just spent 1/2 hour replying to comments, and when I sent, the comments were gone, the comment I commented on was gone, and my comments from 2 days ago were gone. Great, who is sponsoring your new website, Angelo Tsodopololis?

    1. Matt Williams

      There are approximately 62 comments that were posted between 11:30 am and 3:30 pm yesterday that did not come over in the database conversion. The site development team has been alerted to that situation/issue and they are working on restoring those missing comments.

  11. Tia Will

    Frankly

    “RDA created something from nothing.”

    I realize that I am late to this conversation, but I am lost. Could you please clarify your statement “created something from nothing”.
    As far as I cam aware this is in stark contrast to your many, many posts in which you have claimed that the government never creates anything. I am not seeing how you reconcile these two points of view.

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