Late on January 13, Reno Gazette Journal came out with this article painting a bleak scenario for the city of Reno regarding it's bond issues. One of the biggest bonds has to do with the ReTRAC project. Soon after the article was published, a flurry of 'I told you so's' and 'We were right about the trench' posts flooded Facebook and Twitter, even though the article was fairly speculative on the final outcome, and used the words 'might' and 'if' quite a bit.
I was not around in the Mayor Griffin days of Reno, or when ReTRAC was being planned, so I had to do a little digging to piece together the story of what happened. The sequence of events is quite fascinating and puzzling at the same time.
The idea of putting Reno's tracks below ground dates back to 1938, when the City Engineer for the City of Reno stated in the Reno Evening Gazette that "the tracks be depressed instead,to avoid creating a barrier through the city." (Reno Evening Gazette, June 8, 1938).
Click here for a popup timeline of Retrac.
It seems from what I have read on RGJ and Reno News and Review's archives, the public was anti-trench particularly in the years 2000 and 2001, leading up to a fierce 2002 election. Fears were tossed around, everything from it would create a Venice-like flood channel, to it would bankrupt the city, and lots of accusations such as the only reason to build it was to eliminate the horn whistles (particularly the Fitz and Eldorado, which was located right on the tracks).
Some of the Reno folks I talked to yesterday while I was gathering facts/opinions told me they were rarely stopped by a train going through downtown Reno, and the 'real' reason for building it was not so much public safety as it was to eliminate a noise nuisance. I distinctly remember visiting Reno once in 1999, and having to wait nearly 15 minutes for an Amtrak train to unload and load people and luggage. That seems odd to me at the time. Definitely a nuisance for me being a tourist downtown.
Public safety issues aside, a nuisance is a nuisance, and I can understand why city leaders were trying to figure out for decades how to redirect, raise, or lower the tracks that divided our primary tourist corridor in two. Perhaps public opposition was overblown. I wasn't here, so I truly can't say one way or another. However, the Washoe County Commission put an advisory vote on the 2002 ballot asking voters whether the commissioner should urge the city to complete the project. Only 37 percent of voters answered yes. So how about you, my readers...were you around when all this went down? How do you remember it? Were you pro or anti-trench. Are you pro or anti-trench now?
That brings us to the 2002 elections. Voters seemingly had a chance to kill the ReTrac project by voting in people who they knew were opposed to it. Considering ReTRAC was one of the major divisive issues in the election, it was very clear which candidates supported it, and which were clearly against it. In fact, Reno News and Review did a very informative editorial, suggesting exactly who to vote for in order to possibly stop the project. Three seats including the Mayor's were up for grabs. The end result was Cashell, Zadra and Dortch, who were all pro-trench, were elected, wiping out any last hope of halting ReTRAC. So can someone explain to me if the public was so against it, why they voted into office people who clearly supported the project?
In all, the trench cost the city $282 million, not including interest on the debt (which brings it closer to $500 million). Source, RGJ Reprint
Public opposition seemed to die down as the trench was built on time and under budget and with amazing precision by Granite Construction.
And then the trench opened. A friend of mine described opening day of the trench to me yesterday. "When the trench was done, they had a day of free bus tours through it. I went, and what a madhouse. Nobody involved could gauged the extent of local interest and excitement about the project. Thousands turned out to travel the trench. The first 500 got a commemorative T-shirt, and I kid you not, I got the last one. But it was so hot that day and the lines were so long that I never got to do the bus tour of the trench. It would have been about a 3 hour wait in the sun without water. But the trench folks hung in there and got everyone who waited their tours. It was a really special day in Reno, and people will forget that. There was a lot of civic pride being shown that day."
The project garnered positive national attention, and guest complaints downtown about the noise supposedly subsided. I feel mitigating train traffic downtown was the right thing to do. This is on the way to being a metro area of 400,000+, not some side shuttle cow town. There was not the population decline people anticipated when the 2010 census results came out. But was the trench the most ideal way to mitigate that train traffic? Bypassing downtown completely could have been the best and cheapest alternative, but the casinos argued for Amtrak access. A colleague and I were discussing this and he commented "We could have bought every Amtrak passenger who got off in Sparks and needed to get to Downtown Reno each a stretch limo for what the trench cost." Reno picked up 115+ acres of Southern Pacific parcels along the trench, including the land under the Fitz parking garage, all the open area just west of Keystone, parcels just east of Wells Ave along the trench near the industrial area and Waste Management, but still hasn’t figured out APN's for the land or turned them into 'real' parcels.
Then poof, the worst recession in my lifetime occurred, and Reno was ground zero for everything depressing and bad, and still is. Do I think anyone could have predicted a 32% decline in sales tax revenue and steep property tax declines back in 2001 or 2006? Probably not. Critics today like to say they predicted this, however I feel they only predicted the possibility of it.
Today, train traffic is close to double the 16 per day when the trench project started. Nearly every time I am downtown I see a train in the trench when I walk over it. Sometimes they are stopped, allowing SP to better manage train traffic with the two tracks. Southern Pacific recently finally drilled their tunnels in the Sierra taller, and we are now flooded by the double deckers Griffin predicted would come as a result of building the trench. Quiet zones out by Verdi and Mogul, and west Mayberry have become an issue with the added traffic.
So I'd love to hear your thoughts as readers. Like the trench? Hate the trench? Think it was worth it? Liked it back then but not worth the headache it might cause the city now?
September 12, 1996 - Union Pacific / Southern Pacific merge
November 1996 - Depressed trainway identified as City's preferred mitigation of increased train traffic from the merger of Union Pacific/Southern Pacific.
January 1997-1998 - Alternatives investigated jointly by City and Union Pacific.
July 1997 - State Legislature passes ¼ cent sales tax increase with ½ share for grade separations.
April 1998 - Surface Transportation Board determines Reno either speeds up trains or works out deal with Union Pacific for mitigation.
December 1998 - City of Reno/UPRR Memorandum of Understanding signed
October/December 1998 - Downtown Depressed Trainway Committee; Financing Package Developed.
December 1998 - Washoe Washoe County passes ¼ cent sales tax increase
July 2001 - Project Project Management Consultant selected, begins preparation of D/B RFP.
July 2002 - Staff recommends award to recommends award to Granite Construction
September 2002 - D/B Contract Signed, work commences on design.
November 2002 - Cashell elected mayor, Zadra, Dortch elected.