ReTrac in Retrospect

by Mike Van Houten / Jan 15, 2011




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?

Post your comments
  • January 15, 2011 - 7:22:58 PM

    The trench is built and its not going away now. A lot of revisionist history can be offered about whether it should have been built, but that is all water under the trench, so to speak. The only remaining issue is whether it was/is worth $500 million to the city to have built the thing. What has been the real benefit, other than we now don't get stuck for 5-15 minutes downtown anymore waiting for the train to pass. That's worth $500 million?

  • January 15, 2011 - 8:56:02 PM

    The train tracks had to be removed from the downtown core sooner or later. The revisionist "hey. I told you so" posts in the RGJ are to be expected. It seems many Reno/sparks people have a "leave me alone and let's pretend its still 1960" attitude. No wonder why the Cal. Indian casinos are eating our lunch.

  • January 15, 2011 - 9:22:54 PM

    Great write up there was quite a bit I didn't know about the project. I feel the train trench was necessary. I can't think of a major tourist district in any city I have been through that has tracks running through it other than light rail. Maybe the trench was the most expensive option, but Reno is better off in the long run with the trench. I would rather be in debt over a public works project that improves the city than something like the Ballpark.

  • January 16, 2011 - 8:45:13 AM

    I do remember being a tourist in the 90's and staying at the Flamingo, now Montage and the Fitz. The train came through at 4:00 am every time I stayed. Between the light rattle of the room and the BLAST of the train horn, it was impossible to sleep through. The trench was a good idea, but was it worth the money? I don't know.

  • January 16, 2011 - 10:08:47 AM

    The ReTRAC project was a good thing. Our tourism numbers would be dismal if we still had a train waking everyone up throughout the night downtown. People might say that Reno was doing just fine in the decades prior with tourism and a train running through it, but people are different now, less patient and more demanding about their experience.

  • January 16, 2011 - 4:47:02 PM

    The Reno News & Review website launched in 2000-1, which may be why it appears that's when the public began to be against the trench. I can remember stories from as early as 1996. I think that's about when we saw that Drew Lewis was on both the UP/SP and Gannett boards of directors.

  • January 16, 2011 - 8:09:36 PM

    typical reno. mortgage the future so the mayor and the council can get re-elected. Councilwoman Sferrazza is even worse than the others on the council - she voted YES when it came time to authorize the debt that paid for ReTrac AND for the refinancing of the debt a few years ago. Now she has the audacity to paint herself as the "sole voice of wisdom" by opposing the use of general fund revenue to pay the ReTrac debt payment. She says that the general fund wont' be used to "bail out the banks". It's not bailing out the banks Ms. Sferrazza - it's bailing out your own poor decisions. This is why people don't have any faith in their elected officials...

  • January 18, 2011 - 8:30:55 AM

    It is hard to calculate how much the tracks inhibited growth over the years - the area along the tracks was pretty dilapidated and now the opportunity exists for better development. Amtrak was a real issue - requiring more emergency services downtown to cover both sides of the track and the bus system was pretty unpredictable when buses in route could be delayed 15-20 minutes. Was it worth it? Asking that question doesn't even matter because it is here along with the debt that came with it. We will have to deal with it whether you supported or opposed the project.

  • January 18, 2011 - 12:16:37 PM

    I was against ReTRAC from the start as were many Renoites, however, the City did a pretty good job with taxpayer money unleashing a marketing campaign to convince everyone that it was a safety issue and there would be more train traffic and TV ads of cars stuck at the tracks. While many people opposed ReTRAC, they voted for Cashell et al, because they had more ad money and many simple minded people vote for people they are familiar with, and Cashall is a huge name in this area. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself if it was worth investing half a billion downtown for noise mitigation while at the same time, gaming has been declining consistently, and there has been faster and more growth outside the downtown core, i.e., Summit Sierra, Spanish Springs, Legends, South Meadows. We owe a lot to our gaming heritage, but it is now a smaller and smaller part of our economy, and we don't have to go overboard to protect it at the expense (raising taxes) of all the other industrial sectors in Reno. It's not just ReTRAC but hundreds of millions spent on 2 convention centers downtown, the Bowling Stadium before that, the Baseball stadium, for the sake of gaming/tourism. If you're a high tech business thinking about moving to Reno, you're thinking, this place has a great tax environment, but now with the ReTRAC bond issue and Renoites talking about tax restructuring, I'm not so sure I want to relocate to Reno. I'd have to agree with them. Renoites are stuck in the past and starting to discriminate in favor of gaming/tourism and against the real future, technology.

  • January 18, 2011 - 11:59:57 PM

    In 1985, Reno Mayor Bruno Menicucci lobbied hard to build a trench and lower the tracks. He got nowhere with it because of the cost, which was $40 million. 1985. $40 million.

  • January 19, 2011 - 12:10:48 AM

    Maybe the ReTrac project was one of those things like going to the dentist, you hate to do it, it's painful and it'll cost you money BUT if you don't go, it'll hurt more and cost more in the long run. It may have been one of those things like "If we don't do it now, when WILL we be able to afford it?" Who knows. I am not and never have been a Reno resident. I spent many weekends there as a kid with my parents as did my husband with his parents. What we both remember most...and fondly...was that train whistle blowing in the middle of the night. We both agree that it was one of the best sounds EVER because it reminded you that you were in RENO....(and more than likely you'd get to go to play at Circus Circus the next day). Now, when we stay in Reno it's one of the things we miss most. I think though that it was a safety issue. I can't tell you how many times I'd see people trying to beat the train. I also have to laugh every time I remember the time this one guy thought he was being cool, "I'm not gonna let that train get in my way" kind of attitude and he proceeded to climb over the connection between the cars as the train came to a stop. He didn't quite make it and ended up crunching his ...cajones...why is that always funny? Anyway, I miss the "old days" but I think it was necessary to move the city forward in a new direction. I've seen some of the proposed plans or renderings for the area above the tracks (with the retail shops and boutiques) and when the recession has passed, if that's still the plan, I think it will be great. It's just going to take time. You have to remain positive.