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Lawmaker pushes rail fee to aid evacuation planning

(The following article by Phil Pitchford was posted on the Press-Enterprise website on August 10.)

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- State Sen. Nell Soto, responding to a growing concern about railroad safety in the Inland area, plans to announce today that she will push to allow local governments to charge railroads a fee for using their own tracks to raise money for increased evacuation planning.

Soto, D-Pomona, has scheduled a news conference for 1 p.m. at San Bernardino City Hall to detail amendments to her SB 341 that she said would deal with an ongoing threat to residential neighborhoods that could be harmed by a train derailment.

The two major railroads in the Inland area both will oppose the proposed legislation, their representatives said in separate interviews.

Soto could not be reached to comment Wednesday, but her spokesman, David Miller, stressed that the bill in its early stages.

"We certainly are willing to hear what the railroads have to say," Miller said. "But, clearly, not enough is being done to protect the communities. That is Sen. Soto's goal with this, and she sees this as a great way to get the ball rolling."

Union Pacific and BNSF Railway said they already offer free training to first responders in cities and counties where the railroads operate. The cities and counties then can choose their methods of conveying that warning information to citizens in each jurisdiction, the railroads said.

Both companies also pointed out that they paid more than a combined $81 million in state property taxes last year.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the company would oppose the legislation because it would include "charging us for training that we already provide for free."

Davis added that the railroad also offers a free, weeklong class for first responders at the Association of American Railroads' Transportation Technology Center near Pueblo, Colo. Union Pacific has sponsored 35 such programs for 730 people since 1986, according to a company statement.

Union Pacific will spend about $1.3 billion this year on maintaining track it owns in 23 states, including $100 million in the Los Angeles basin, Davis said. He also said that derailments in the basin have dropped by 48 percent in the last five years.

Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for BNSF in San Bernardino, said the company has trained or conducted hazardous materials exercises for more than 2,700 first responders in California in the last 51⁄2 years. The company conducted a derailment drill in Barstow just last month, she said.

"Local government does not need legislation to formulate any kind of emergency planning or conduct training or drills," Kent said in a statement.

Miller, the spokesman for Soto, said the railroads' statements do little to assure communities where derailments have occurred or could occur.

"The railroads can say what they want, but derailments keep happening," Miller said. "They've got a lot of money, and the cities and counties don't necessarily have a lot of money to pay for increased preparedness."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

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