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Lessons from a Trestle

by K. Lloyd Billingsley [commentator] 4/13/07

In California's capital the trains are running on time again, over a trestle that locals thought would take months to repair. It got fixed in record time, for a good reason that has managed to escape notice: the government got out of the way.

On March 15, Sacramento looked like 9/11 all over again as a burning 1,400-foot trestle near the American River blacked the sky, prompting a nearby Costco to shut down. The blaze tied up traffic and blocked access to a popular bike trail, but there was more at stake than recreation. The Union Pacific line severed by the fire connects the Port of Oakland with the rest of the country, and carries passengers, produce, cars, and chemicals to a refinery in Benicia. While the smoke was still rising, Union Pacific crews sprung into action. Government officials could have held them up endlessly, but to their great credit decided to stand aside.

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

As reports in the Sacramento Bee noted, regulators decided not to require Union Pacific to secure special permits to rebuild the trestle, completely destroyed in the blaze. The California Department of Transportation allowed Union Pacific to use oversize trucks to transport building materials on state highways. The California Department of Fish and Game decided not to require a streambed alteration permit.

Water-quality officials from both the state and federal government ruled that issues of toxicity could be addressed after the repair was finished, not before it could take place. Officials told reporters they were relying on UP's experience to handle the situation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency said it would monitor the project but made no move to shut down the repairs.

The Governor's office urged that the state do whatever possible to help Union Pacific rebuild the line, and even offered to declare a state of emergency. That turned out to be unnecessary. A Union Pacific crew of 135 worked around the clock and in 72 hours had driven the first pilings. A scant 12 days after the blaze, freight trains were crossing the rebuilt trestle, four days ahead of schedule. By the last weekend in March, trains were rolling over the trestle's second line, more than a month ahead of schedule.

With service restored in record time, Union Pacific officials got to work on the cleanup, hauling off as much as two feet of soil. During the repair, Union Pacific pumped runoff into a tank to protect groundwater. The railway company gave $20,000 worth of equipment to local fire districts and grants of $4,000 to four community associations. No government edict required Union Pacific to do this. Private property and the profit motive did not prevent the company from going the second mile on their own initiative. 

CalTrans official Bill Bronte told reporters he was impressed with railroad's ability to respond to an emergency. That raises a key point. If this fire had been on state property, with government agencies and employees tasked to fix it, the job would have doubtless taken months. Consider the ineptitude of FEMA after the Katrina disaster, and the typical delays and cost overruns of CalTrans projects.

Government at all levels should learn the lesson and look for ways to step aside more often. They should make it easier, not harder, to build new refineries and liquid natural gas ports. And instead of declaring a depressed area an "enterprise zone," with relaxed taxes and regulations, the whole state or country could be declared an enterprise zone.

The government should not step aside from its responsibility for law enforcement, including cases of arson, which this fire surely was. The old trestle was treated with creosote, now banned, which may have made it a target for eco-terrorists, not known to be fans of commerce. Police and fire officials have yet to solve the cause of the blaze. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute




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