Opposed early on, ReTRAC trench is fulfulling its promise
August 21, 2017
It was suggested by the Reno city engineer in 1936 after the federal government said the Southern Pacific railroad tracks should be elevated as they passed through town.
It was proposed at least five more times over the following half-century, until the merger of the Southern Pacific with the Union Pacific in the 1990s forced the issue.
Yet even after the Reno City Council decided to set it in motion, the ReTRAC (Reno Transportation Rail Access Corridor) train trench project met opposition — including Northern Nevada Business Weekly's former co-publisher Kenneth G. Moen — that was largely unconvinced they needed it.
"There are a hundred reasons for removal of the trains rumbling through downtown," Moen wrote in 2002, mentioning improved emergency-vehicle access as among the most important.
However, Moen and others objected to the cost and inconvenience involved in digging the more than two-mile-long trench, favoring alternatives such as building traffic overpasses or rerouting rail service to existing lines north of town.
Those alternatives didn't happen, and the project went forward despite petitions, a lawsuit that went to the Nevada Supreme Court and a 2002 Washoe County advisory vote showing most residents opposed to the work.
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Neither, though, did the trench live up to the fears of cost overruns, construction delays, mechanical failures or, to date, the city's financial collapse, all of which popped up over the years.
Businesses on both sides of the tracks were affected, of course: newspaper reports from the project's early days mention roughly 53 moving elsewhere and others closing as the city bought the property it needed for the trench.
Reno Iron Works, for instance, had to move from Keystone Avenue, where it had been for 96 years, to a site on East Parr Boulevard more than three miles to the northeast.
Even some businesses that did not have to move saw interruptions in sales as the work went on, blocking traffic until it was over.
On the other hand, without the tracks at ground level, downtown north-south traffic flow increased tremendously, with the hoped-for elimination of fire and REMSA delays.
J.W. Hodge, REMSA's chief operations officer, said the service's computer system was unable to provide a firm number on the time that the trench has saved.
"What I can tell you, from the people who have been here before and after, is that the incidence of delays due to train traffic has become a rare occurrence since the trench was completed," Hodge said.
Customers of downtown casinos and hotels also received a major benefit from the trench's retrenchment. Whitney Peak Hotel — on the site of the former Fitzgerald's Casino & Hotel next to the tracks — has a more-pleasant sonic atmosphere for its outdoor climbing wall than it would have had if the tracks had remained on the surface.
"From a visitor's perspective, it makes a big difference when you don't have to wait 15 minutes to cross the street," said Ben McDonald, communications manager for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.
The trench has been finished and in operation for more than a decade, having opened on time and under budget in 2005.
Even so, the matter of the trench covers, also known as caps or lids, is an ongoing issue for that stretch from North Virginia Street to West Street.
Known as ReTRAC Plaza East and ReTRAC Plaza West, occasional reports suggest how those sections might be used for retail or other buildings. To date, no solid plan for their permanent use has come into play.
In the meantime, the lids have been devoted to a number of temporary uses: displaying art, serving as a display site for Hot August Nights and providing open space for downtown workers and visitors.
The most recent enhancement to the area came in June, when the city set up a temporary fenced-in beer garden on ReTRAC Plaza East.
"It really has dressed up that area," said Alexis Hill, Reno's arts, culture and events manager. "And then we'll be adding cafe lights to the fence in a few weeks."
And, along with the Biggest Little Dog Park Coalition, a group of downtown residents, the city also is planning a small fenced-in dog area on the ReTRAC West cover, Hill said.
In recent years, the city government has mulled over various options for the lids, including some offered at a few design charettes — project proposal and design sessions — about a year ago.
"There were no plans to finalize these designs; they were just conceptual shots in the dark," said Bill Dunne, the city's revitalization manager.
Private enterprise probably will be the force that sets the tone for what happens, Dunne said.
"We're waiting for somebody in the retail sector to realize the potential of the area and step in," he said.