Railroad Newsline for Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Compiled by Larry W. Grant
In Memory of Rob Carlson, 1952 – 2006
GRINDER TRAIN OPERATOR LACKED EXPERIENCE, TRAINING, UNION OFFICIALS SAY
SACRAMENTO, CA --
KCRA 3 Investigates has uncovered new information related to the investigation into a train derailment that left two people dead near Baxter in the Sierra last month.
Two workers were killed and eight others injured when the train went off the tracks and caught fire.
Union officials are raising some serious safety concerns.
The operator of the train worked for Harsco, a company contracted by Union Pacific to work on the rails.
Union officials said the operator lacked experience and extensive training. They said he was not a certified engineer and that he was operating the train through a legal loop hole.
The train that derailed is known as a grinder. It's a maintenance train and is therefore considered a specialized piece of equipment.
The trains include multiple cars and thousands of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials, but federal regulations do not require the operator to be certified or to be a licensed engineer.
In fact, there are no real requirements that dictate the amount of training or experience.
Union Pacific and Harsco officials said only that the accident is under investigation and that it could take months to complete.
Union officials said it's time for the federal government to get more involved with railroad safety, and that accidents like this one will continue to happen as long as the railroad companies are free to regulate themselves. – KCRA-TV3, Sacramento, CA. courtesy Coleman Randall, Jr
RAILCAR RUCKUS; THIRTY MILES OF CARS IRRITATE BUSINESSES IN SAN LUIS VALLEY
DEL NORTE, CO --
Last year, tourists were asking Fred Oglesby about the rocks in the potato fields.
This year, their No. 1 question to the finance director of the Rio Grande County Museum is "What are the railroad cars?"
The rocks in the fields are easy to explain - farmers rip them out after the yearly harvest to make their fields easier to plow.
The train cars, though, are another story.
Drivers on U.S. Highway 160 through the San Luis Valley can't miss the railroad cars - all 30 miles of them.
Almost all of them look the same - rusty metal flatbed cars with a cryptic code like "TTX 778309" painted on the side. They stretch from one end of Rio Grande County to the other, with small breaks between every dozen or so.
The cars started showing up in South Fork in the spring. The train grew east and now reaches Monte Vista, with another couple of batches arriving every week.
"Nobody in Rio Grande County's very happy about it," Oglesby said. "It's tantamount to somebody jacking up a car on your front lawn."
The cars will be here for two years or more, but they won't stretch farther east than U.S. Highway 285, said Jarrod Biggs, an administrative intern with the county government.
The man behind the plan is the track's owner, Ed Ellis of Chicago. He's getting paid $2 a foot per year to store the cars for a Chicago company that used to be called Trailer Train, but is now known as TTX. The contract runs for two years but can be extended for three additional years.
Ellis is president of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, which takes day trippers from Alamosa east to Blanca, a small town along U.S. 160. Ellis plans to use the money he makes from TTX to repair the tracks between Alamosa and South Fork, making it possible to run passenger trains throughout the valley.
"When (the railcars) leave, we'll have a little nest egg to fix the track out there," he said.
The flatbed cars are obsolete because they were built to hold only one semitrailer. Modern cars can hold two trailers, allowing shippers to double their load. TTX probably will sell the cars for scrap, unless it can find a use for them in the next few years, Ellis said.
Ellis hasn't heard complaints for several months. He is a frequent visitor to the valley, and his wife's family lives there, he said.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife worried the cars were blocking migration routes, so Ellis opened up breaks between the cars this summer.
He also left the tracks empty next to the park in Del Norte, Biggs said.
Not every valley resident is upset.
Kathy Black runs her business, Kathy's Fabric Trunk, out of her home just west of Del Norte. She made the most of the train cars by hanging a sign for her business on the car at the end of her driveway.
The cars showed up Aug. 18 at her home, which is partially shielded by an aspen grove from U.S. 160 and the railroad.
"It doesn't bother me, I guess," Black said.
But South Fork merchants are steaming mad.
Ellis had "no regard at all for the businesses that are being blocked on the north end of the tracks," said Bob Miller, South Fork's community development director.
Driveways to the businesses are open, but the cars partially block the businesses' signs from the view of motorists.
Miller calls the cars "the trash on our tracks."
Ellis offered to move them west out of South Fork for a fee, but no one offered to pay, he said. Miller said the tab would have been $20,000, and South Fork business owners do not want to pay because they didn't cause the problem.
"So the bottom line is they're not getting moved," Miller said.
But it could be worse.
"Like everybody says, at least they're not box cars," Biggs said. - Joe Hanel, The Durango Herald
RAILROAD OWNER DREAMS OF TRAIN TO WOLF CREEK
ALAMOSA, CO --
The owner of the railroad tracks in the San Luis Valley is studying extending the line up to the Wolf Creek Ski Area.
Ed Ellis said he expects a report from his consultants this year.
"Trains are the all-weather mode. It would be nice to have year-round access to Wolf Creek," Ellis said.
Ellis said he's at the beginning stages of his idea and wants to see if people are interested.
"It would obviously be an expensive project," given the terrain, he said.
Last year, Ellis started the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, which runs from Alamosa to Blanca. He wants to expand it and hopes it can do for the town of La Veta what the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has done for Silverton.
Ellis is leasing the tracks in Rio Grande County to a Chicago company to store old flat-cars.
He plans to use the money to fix the tracks west of Alamosa so his Rio Grande trains can take tourists to South Fork. If all his plans come to fruition, passengers could ride a train for more than 100 miles across the San Luis Valley, from La Veta Pass to Wolf Creek Pass.
About 10,000 people rode the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad in its first year, Ellis said.
The narrow-gauge tracks from South Fork to Creede are owned by Don Shank, Ellis' partner in the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Shank's plans to run a passenger train to Creede four years ago stalled after some Creede residents objected.
Ellis is not working with the developers of the controversial Village at Wolf Creek, a proposed resort town, he said. - Joe Hanel, The Durango Herald
IOWA COMPANY DESIGNS EQUIPMENT TO MAKE IRAQI RAILROAD SAFER
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA --
An Iowa company is helping to make Iraqi trains safer.
Wabtec Railway Electronics of Cedar Rapids has received a contract to design an onboard train control system to be installed on locomotives in Iraq to help prevent deadly collisions.
The contract is from Mafeks International, a U-S-Turkish joint venture.
The Iraqi railroad system sustained major looting and damage after the war started in 2003. That includes radio and electronic signal equipment, which was either stolen or blown up -- but trains were still running with no controls.
Wabtec spokesman Stephen Graham says its onboard control system uses a satellite, which gives the company the capability of controlling the Iraqi railroad from Cedar Rapids.
Testing is slated to start early next year. - The Associated Press, WQAD-TV8, Moline, IL
COLUMBIA GRAIN, BNSF AGREE ON MONTANA SHUTTLE TRAIN FACILITY
Columbia Grain, Inc. (CGI) and BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) announced today that they have agreed to terms and conditions under which Columbia will expand its facility at Carter, Montana, to accommodate 110-car shuttle grain trains. The upgrade to the facility, which currently loads 52-car trains, is expected to be completed during the third quarter of 2007.
The agreement follows BNSF’s announcement in 2004 that it would maintain its Great Falls-Fort Benton line, on which the Carter facility is located, to allow for the operation of 110-car shuttle trains.
“We are pleased to have reached this agreement with Columbia Grain,” says Kevin Kaufman, BNSF’s group vice president, Agricultural Products. “This facility will provide the benefits of shuttle train service to even more Montana farmers, and it reinforces our commitment to the Fort Benton line.”
“Columbia Grain looks forward to the opportunity to better serve Chouteau County producers with efficient and competitive shuttle service,” said Tom Hammond, chief executive officer of Columbia Grain.
Columbia has other shuttle loading facilities in Montana at Harlem, Kasa Point and Rudyard.
Addition of the Carter facility will bring the number of BNSF-served shuttle loading facilities in the state to 13.
Columbia Grain is a leading world grain exporter located in Portland, Oregonm. It supplies superior quality western grain to service both U.S. domestic markets and export markets worldwide. Columbia’s supply lines include the western region of the United States, well known for its high quality wheat, feed grains and pulses. With extensive origination facilities, Columbia is able to supply reliable and quality products to meet its customers’ needs. - BNSF News Release
BNSF ISSUES WINTER WEATHER DELAY UPDATE FOR ILLINOIS
This is an update to the winter weather Service Advisory issued on Friday, December 1, 2006, regarding the delay of traffic moving throughout the state of Illinois.
The severe weather conditions continue to cause train delays across the state of Illinois and are also causing multiple signal system outages -- resulting in significant congestion between Galesburg and Chicago.
A portion of the system outage was returned to service at 14:30 Sunday, December 3, 2006. Currently we do not have an estimate on restoring the remaining signals affecting approximately 14 miles of track. We continue to operate under a manual system through the affected area.
Customers may experience delays from 24 to 48 hours on traffic in this region. - BNSF Service Advisory
UP FREIGHT TRAIN DERAILMENT IN ILLINOIS CAUSES EVACUATIONS
CHICAGO, IL --
Two locomotives and 21 cars of a Union Pacific railroad freight train derailed in southern Illinois on Monday, spilling a chemical that forced the evacuation of about 75 homes in bitterly cold weather, the railroad said.
Spokesman James Barnes said several people were taken to a hospital for checks after they reported breathing problems but the substance which leaked was an industrial detergent that may cause irritation but is not volatile.
Crews were in the process of removing some of the cars which left the tracks, he added, and the cause of the accident was still under investigation.
Some of those forced to leave their homes after the accident were taken to a nearby church.
The 83-car train was headed to Chicago from Houston when it left the tracks near Benton, Illinois, around 02:35. - Reuters
MODEL TRAINS TEACH HISTORY; NEW EXHIBIT AT MUSEUM IN WILLITS
WILLITS, CA --
After three successful years, the Mendocino County Museum and Roots of Motive Power, Inc. have collaborated to create the fourth annual model train exhibit showcased in the Redwood Empire Railroad History wing of the museum.
The exhibit, named "Memories in Motion," opened Saturday with more than 300 Mendocino County-area families and children enjoying the free festivities.
The exhibit runs through January 2007 and began with Santa Claus arriving on a steam locomotive, which is always a favorite for children. Parents and children present Saturday were able to give Santa their Christmas lists and take a quick photo. While Santa helped to kick off the event, families found more than just candy and holiday cheer at the museum.
With displays of more than 20 different model trains throughout the exhibit, families can learn about the history of model trains as well as Mendocino County. Most of the train sets displayed were provided by Mendocino County families and most are made by Lionel Trains including a replica of "The Polar Express" based upon the book.
The exhibit also features photographs detailing the history of the railroad and its pertinence to Mendocino County history.
"A lot of great things happened here in Willits," Eileen Pinsky said, who has worked at the museum for two years. "There's not really a best part, because every exhibit has it's own historical context. It all pertains to Mendocino County and it's history."
While the children may find the most enjoyment from looking at all the model trains in action, parents can take time to learn about the history of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.
With help from the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society, Roots of Motive Power and the Redwood Empire Railroad History Project, the museum proudly displays Northwestern Pacific Caboose No. 13 for families to see.
In October of 2003 the caboose finally returned home to Willits and the Mendocino County Museum after plying the rails of California for more than 60 years. Restoration of the caboose began in June of 2000 with the help of the Society by Bruce Evans and a team of dedicated workers. Six years after the restoration began, Caboose No. 13 provides a visual link between Mendocino County's past and present for all families to see.
And for people who aren't interested in trains, the exhibit also features displays of decorations and gifts from Christmases past -- including an old "Frogger" arcade game straight out of 1982.
The Mendocino County Museum's "Memories in Motion" display is open to the public on Friday's from 10:00 to 16:30 as well as Saturday and Sunday 11:00 to 15:00.. Groups or schools interested in seeing the display Wednesday's through Friday's can call the museum to make an appointment. - Zack Sampsel, The Ukiah Daily Journal
NEBRASKA CO-OP NUMBERS CONTINUE TO DECLINE
KEARNEY, NE --
The number of local farm cooperatives will continue its dramatic fall next year if two south-central Nebraska co-ops agree to merge next year.
On Jan. 31, patrons of Hastings-based Heartland Co-op and Funk-based Midland Co-op will vote on whether to join forces in the trend toward bigger is cheaper.
As recently as 30 years ago there were upward of 300 farm co-ops in Nebraska, a number that has fallen to around 40, said co-op specialist Mike Turner, a retired ag economist for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"It's amazing what's been happening," he said. "The family owned companies, the mom and pop elevators, have declined the most dramatically."
The consolidations are partly born by economies of scale, partly by cutbacks in single-line railroad service off the main lines.
UNL ag economics professor Jeffrey Royer said the co-ops consolidations also reflect trends of bigger farms operated by fewer farmers, leaving fewer prospective member-investors in co-ops.
Farmers used to need off-farm grain storage so they could hold onto some part of each harvest to sell when the prices were better.
The co-ops let farmers combine to create their own markets and buy supplies at volume discounts, Royer said.
But some of today's farm operations are so big they can demand volume discounts on their own.
"The root of it is that by being of that size, you gain substantial advantages in buying in volume at lower prices," Turner said.
He said one Iowa co-op operator told him that his co-op gets lower and lower prices as it gets bigger and bigger.
Said Turner: "If you have a competitor who is capitalizing on that purchasing power and you can't, you're out of luck."
He said, however, that it's important for farmer-owned cooperatives to maintain local ties as they get bigger.
The local businesses know, better understand and better serve the needs of local co-op members, he said.
He also said the growing number of ethanol plants in Nebraska is affecting the co-op business.
They need corn every day of the year, Turner said: "You don't close up and stop operating on Sunday."
Co-ops can meet that need because they can supply crops from several farmers, who may have only limited on-farm storage. - The Beatrice Daily Sun
OHIO TRIP A TRAIN LOVER'S DREAM
SPRINGFIELD, MO --
Railroad history is where you find it, including a suburb of Cleveland.
It was in Berea, Ohio, once known as "the grindstone capital of the world."
For our wedding anniversary, our son and daughter-in-law took us to the Station Restaurant.
It's located in the 130-year-old Union Depot. The food was excellent.
But the frosting on the cake - at least for a rail fan like me - were the two mainline tracks a few feet from the depot.
A newspaper review of the restaurant said trains came by every seven minutes.
It seemed less than that while we were there, as long freight trains pounded past. They pulled me away from the table to watch the trains. It was a train watcher's paradise.
The tracks are shared by four major railroads, restaurant owner Bob Sutton told me. That explains the heavy traffic volume.
At least one of the trains was pulled by a BNSF locomotive.
Sutton said three Amtrak passenger trains a day use a nearby track, but we saw none of them.
Because the freight trains were at full speed, the experience was more dramatic than dining at the late, lamented Frisco Depot Harvey House on Main Avenue in Springfield, Missouri.
The passenger trains arriving on the main line north of the restaurant were slowing for a stop or just pulling out.
I watched passenger trains on the Frisco Springfield to St. Louis main line while my family was eating at the Ranch Hotel, near the site of Exotic Animal Paradise east of the city and the Pennant Hotel at Rolla. But the tracks were farther from the hotels, so the effect was less dramatic than at The Station Restaurant.
The Union Depot replaced a wooden station that became inadequate for freight and passenger traffic.
On May 3, 1876, the depot and a mile-long, horse-drawn railroad from Berea's center to the railroad were dedicated.
Muddy roads made travelers prefer the train to carriages or horseback.
Berea was settled in 1809 by New Englander Jerod Hickox, according to the town's Chamber of Commerce.
In 1836, the Rev. Henry Sheldon and settlers chose biblical names "Berea" and "Tabor" for the community. A coin toss made it Berea.
In 1842, John Baldwin, one of the town's founders, discovered a rich sandstone vein. He invented a lathe with which he developed grindstone.
Until grindstone was replaced by concrete and other materials, 93 percent of the world's supplies were produced by as many as five quarry companies.
The industry folded in 1946. The quarries were converted to parks and lakes.
The station was closed in 1931 and fell into disrepair.
In 1975, local businessmen Ellis and Frank Lovell bought the building and remodeled it as a restaurant.
Sutton was executive chef for the Pufferbelly restaurant. Remember the child's song? "Down at the station, early in the morning, see the little pufferbellies all in a row."
Sutton and his wife, Tammy, bought the restaurant in 2000 and renamed it.
The Station Restaurant is a better fit for the wonderful railroad's floor show. - Hank Billings, The Springfield News-Leader
LOGJAM BLOCKS TRASK RIVER AT RAILROAD BRIDGE
Port of Tillamook Bay (OR)officials are waiting and watching a major logjam blocking access to the lower Trask River, but they don't believe it will last long.
A jumble of logs, trees and branches is jammed against a railroad bridge between Loren's Drift boat launch and the U.S. 101 boat launch. The jam was caused by recent flooding.
"This one has a lot of small debris that isn't moving out fast at all; we've had quite a few in the past," said Jack Crider, manager of the Port of Tillamook Bay. "If there were some big stuff threatening the bridge, I'd put someone out there, but any time I put people on bridges, it puts them at risk, so I try to avoid it if I can."
In most cases, Crider said, the debris clears itself as the river drops during clear weather. Small limbs, branches and small logs simply drop lower and lower and move downriver until the jam clears. High water -- but not floodwater -- then finishes the job.
The jam will block boat access to the lower river until it clears. For several days after, boating below the railroad and out into the bay will be threatened by the debris.
Crider said port officials watch the bridge daily and will notify both the local office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and local fishing Web sites when it clears. - Bill Monroe, The Portland Oregonian
PAIR REPORT SUSPICIOUS OBJECT NEXT TO TRACKS
BAKERSFIELD, CA --
A bomb squad responded to the railroad tracks near Truxtun Avenue after two passers-by reported seeing a suspicious object near them Sunday evening, said Bakersfield police Detective Greg Terry.
Terry described the object as a cylinder-shaped device with wires. No injuries had been reported as of Sunday night.
Police detained and subsequently arrested Andrew Cook, 43, on charges of possession of a destructive device (a modified firework in his possession) and a parole violation, but he was not arrested in connection with the object found on the railroad tracks, officers reported.
Terry said two people who were walking along the tracks on their way to the Amtrak station near Truxtun reported seeing the object along the overpass at Union Avenue at about 18:20.
Terry said no homes or businesses were near where the object was found.
At about 22:03 a loud boom filled the air near where the object was found. Terry said it was the sound of the bomb squad disrupting the object in order to make it safe for them to examine it. As of about 22:30 railroad traffic through the area had been stopped while police worked.
At least one train on its way to the Bakersfield station was delayed. A bus picked passengers up from where the train was stopped and drove them to the Amtrak station.
The bus full of passengers on the southbound train arrived at the station at about 22:30.
Passenger Helen DePasquale said she heard on the train there had been a bomb threat but wasn't alarmed.
"I was just curious," DePasquale said. "I was thinking in terms of it was someone with too much time." - Lisa Schencker, The Bakersfield Californian
ALASKA RAILROAD LOCOMOTIVE HITS ROCK, GASHES FUEL TANK
ANCHORAGE, AK --
A freight train traveling north of Girdwood, Alaska hit a large rock earlier Monday, causing damage to a locomotive fuel tank.
Tim Thompson of the Alaska Railroad says the strike created a four-inch gash in the lead locomotives' fuel tank, causing diesel fuel to leak directly onto the railbed. At this time there is no threat to the waters of Turnagain Arm and it is unknown how much fuel has spilled, but crews estimate around 1200 gallons.
Alaska Railroad Corporation environmental and safety crews are on scene and beginning clean-up response. - Natasha Rasheed, KTUU-TV2, Anchorage, AK
TRAINS STILL PLAY A VITAL ROLE IN SHIPPING
Many of the gift and holiday items lining the shelves of stores today arrived at U.S. shipping ports weeks ago, and have been hauled the rest of the way here by rail. Steve Forsberg, spokesman for the BNSF Railway Company, says many people don't realize how many integral parts of daily life depends on the rails.
Forsberg says many of the ingredients used to make our food products, the coal to run power plants in the Midwest, building materials used to make our homes -- and the rail industry even moves more than 70-percent of the new cars and trucks we drive.
Forsberg says railroads overall are as much a part of daily life as they ever were in history. We're not traveling by train as much as previous generations did, but they still play a role in providing the goods we consume. Passenger travel's turning around, too, with Amtrak reporting record ridership this year. Forsberg says the Burlington Northern moves a great deal of the consumer items we buy and use daily throughout much of the western two-thirds of the United States.
To do that, the BNSF has an infrastructure of land, rails, shops, offices and people that rivals any big corporation. There are 32-thousand "route miles" of track in 28 states and two Canadian provinces, and a little over 48-thousand employees. Energy prices and other factors combine to ensure the railroads are still a vital part of our transportation infrastructure.
Forsberg says trains are still the most fuel-efficient way we've ever created to move fright long distances -- Forsberg says a train will move a ton of freight more than 400 miles on a gallon diesel fuel, he says, more than three times as efficient as its shipment by truck.
A few years ago he asked the railroad's mechanical department to figure out how that would translate to an SUV and they calculated it's the equivalent of a vehicle making 250 miles to the gallon. It's a job source too, especially with baby-boomers retiring. Forsberg says the railroad's in the middle of the greatest hiring surge in the industry's history. - Stella Shaffer, Radio Iowa
METRO CORRALLING LEAKY CURRENT ON RAIL TRACKS
A related Houston Chronicle file photo is here:
HOUSTON, TX --
The Metropolitan Transit Authority and its light-rail contractor have been working nights to find and fix the sites where stray electrical current is leaking into the ground from the tracks.
New tests show they've made progress, Metro said last week.
About 15 percent of the 7.5-mile line is losing current at levels that exceed the "very stringent" specifications in Metro's contract with Siemens Transportation Systems, said Bryan Pennington, the agency's vice president of planning, engineering and construction.
That compares with 45 percent of the line in April, and the level of leakage is now lower throughout its length, Pennington said.
He said the leakage poses no threat to the public but could cause damage to metal objects near the tracks in time if not corrected.
A map provided by Metro shows current leakage still exceeds contractual specifications at five segments of the line, all of which have track switches or crossovers.
By far the longest runs from Old Spanish Trail to Holcombe and includes the Texas Medical Center's Smith Lands parking lot, Metro's TMC Transit Center and the Fannin Street bridge over Brays Bayou.
Medical Center officials said recently that they and several hospitals on Fannin, where the tracks run, have hired a consultant to test for stray current in building foundations.
The second-longest segment with excessive current runs from Congress to the University of Houston-Downtown, the north end of the rail line.
It includes the Main Street bridge over Buffalo Bayou.
Short segments where the current remains a problem are at Hermann Park Station, Wheeler Station and from Webster to Pierce, near the Downtown Transit Center and Metro headquarters.
Pennington said it probably will take less than a year for leakage all along the line to be reduced to contractual levels.
Metro has been dealing with the problem since summer 2005 and working on it "intensively" - mostly at night - since April, he Pennington said.
Although Siemens is making the repairs, Metro has personnel to monitor it, he said.
Metro notified Siemens that the agency spent $917,000 from May 2005 to June 2006 for staff monitoring, consultants and tests.
Pennington and Siemens spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton said a meeting is likely in early 2007 to discuss how to split the costs and try to close out the project.
Jim Cody, Metro director of construction, said the agency will spend about $30,000 to install monitoring stations where the rail tracks cross under the Pierce Elevated, the Southwest Freeway and the South Loop.
The Texas Department of Transportation has given permission for the tests, which will check whether current from the rails may be flowing to the reinforcing steel in freeway support columns.
TxDOT says it is confident there is no danger to the public. - Rad Sallee, The Houston Chronicle
COUNCIL: STREETCAR PROJECT RUSHED
ALBUQUERQUE, NM --
Mayor Martin Chavez and a majority of Albuquerque city councilors were confident in their vision of a streetcar trundling down Central Avenue through a resurgent inner city.
So confident that they placed the project on a political fast track, passing a tax extension that proved controversial and moving to put the streetcar up for a vote on the first available ballot.
That changed, abruptly, this weekend. Acknowledging considerable public opposition to the project, Chavez said he was "stepping back" and would ask the council to repeal the tax extension, while instead pushing for a wide ranging study of the city's transportation needs.
Councilors who had supported the $270 million plan, meanwhile, appeared to back away from the mayor's full-throttle approach to building the streetcar, though they said they believe in the project.
"I've said all along that I think we need to go through a proper, transparent process with this," said council President Martin Heinrich, who had the majority of council members backing the plan. "It's clear that the public at large was not really understanding what they're going to get out of this, which means we're not doing our jobs."
For the streetcar, the move from green light to blue-ribbon panel likely means at least a year of study before the plan again comes under consideration.
For a mayor who has often battled city councils, the move represented an unusual setback in a period of relative consensus.
"I think it is a loss for Mayor Chavez," University of New Mexico political science professor Christine Sierra said. "He thought he had the votes on the city council, and then he tried to railroad it through with the voters. He was definitely going for victory on this."
More controversial than advertised
Streetcar supporters had said the system would be a key component in ramping up economic development in Downtown Albuquerque, citing successful examples such as Portland, Oregon.
Some opponents, however, said the streetcar was a poor fit for the Duke City; others said the idea simply hadn't been studied enough.
Councilor Don Harris, who represents the far heights, was in the latter group. Harris had said he liked the idea of a streetcar, but believed it needed much more study.
On Nov. 6, Harris voted against extending a quarter-percent gross receipts tax earmarked for transportation projects. Albuquerque voters had approved that tax with the provision that it would be repealed in 2009, and Harris said it should be up to voters, not the council, whether to extend the tax.
The tax extension passed 6-3, but that provided only the seed money the city would use to secure bond financing for the streetcar project.
Securing those bonds required a supermajority of seven councilors, meaning Harris' opposition took on far greater significance.
Facing an obstacle, the administration moved to put the project before voters, first trying to attach the question to an APS bond election scheduled for February, though that plan was scrapped because it violated an obscure provision of the New Mexico Constitution.
It's not clear exactly what voters would have been asked. The city could have proposed a nonbinding resolution in an effort to convince Harris and the two other councilors who voted against the tax that the project enjoyed public support.
Or it could have put the bond issue to a vote. Support from a majority of council members and a majority of the public would have superseded the need for the seven-vote council majority, city attorney Bob White said.
But in the meantime, the "nay" votes had their say.
Opponents of the streetcar project packed a Nov. 20 city council meeting. Some carried signs that read "We Want Our Tax Vote Back."
"Opposition was beginning to organize," Sierra said. "That opposition, I think, was going to gain traction."
Heinrich, like other councilors, said he received many complaints about the project. Some, he said, were unfounded, like concerns that the streetcar would eliminate curb-side parking on Central Avenue or clog traffic.
Others were more constructive, like the criticism that the proposed streetcar route didn't extend far enough east to link up with a heavily-used north-south bus route on San Mateo Boulevard.
"I was hearing from a lot of people who I'd expect to be allies on this project but didn't really understand what we were proposing," he said. "It's clear to me that we need to take a more measured approach and start a broad dialogue with the public."
Though Heinrich said he believed the fast-track approach may have "placed the cart before the horse" and undermined public support for the project in the short term, he declined to place blame for the streetcar strategy.
Other councilors were slightly less circumspect.
"I had a conversation with the administration and said I felt we were moving too quickly," said councilor Debbie O'Malley, who voted in favor of the tax extension. "But we were left with an up or down vote, and I felt it was a good project."
Chavez defended his handling of the project and expressed some frustration that it had been derailed, for now, by a minority of the council.
"It some regards we have the tail wagging the dog here, with the minority dictating policy," he said.
"If there were seven votes, this would all be behind us," Chavez continued. "But they can make their case to the public that we should be the one major city in America without a rail network, and if the public agrees, I'll respect that."
Chavez said he wanted the study to look at all aspects of transportation in Albuquerque and how those parts - including a possible streetcar - fit together. He said there was no timetable for the project, but expected it would take at least a year.
Chavez said he believed public opinion on the streetcar was split roughly 50-50.
"We're stepping back a step, hopefully with the goal of taking two steps forward," Chavez said.
Since last year's election, Chavez's sometimes combative relationship with the council has warmed, with the streetcar project proving a major point of agreement.
Heinrich said he believed the political alliance behind the streetcar would survive a blue-ribbon panel.
"This has always been about policy and not politics," he said. "It's still good policy. We just need to do a better job explaining to the public why we believe in it."
"I don't think this is a lost cause at all," O'Malley said.
Harris, whose seventh vote proved so critical, said he was pleased with the decision to adopt a slower approach.
"I think this shows that the mayor is open-minded and being flexible, and that's a good thing," he said. - Michael Gisick, The Albuquerque Tribune
WHO'LL DRIVE THIS TRAIN?
Having worked in commuter rail territory in Chicago for more than 39 years, my question is, where do they plan to get conductors, engineers and brakemen to operate commuter trains at 89 mph?
I am a retired railroad conductor from the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific, CSXT and Iowa Interstate Railroad. I sure do want to know this information before I ever get on any train operating at 89 mph. - Richard Gavril, Tooele, UT, Letter to the Editor, The Salt Lake Tribune