GLENWOOD SPRINGS — “Rail banking,” a legal status that preserves the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s Rio Grande Trail corridor for future freight or passenger rail service, could put up a road block to plans for the proposed South Bridge project.
RFTA, in comments submitted recently as part of the formal South Bridge Environmental Assessment, says that legal status, obtained when local governments purchased the old rail corridor in the late 1990s, is not properly acknowledged in the recently released project assessment.
That could not only impact a future rail line, but the existing use of the corridor for a paved bicycle and pedestrian trail, according to RFTA’s statement.
“RFTA’s failure to maintain the ability to reactivate freight rail service (and to preserve the corridor’s railbanked status) could result in the loss of the corridor asset,” according to a Dec. 6, 2013, letter from RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship to CDOT Region 3 project official Michael Vanderhoof.
Too many trail crossings, or inadequate crossings, could eliminate the future potential for rail, he said.
That, in turn, could potentially cause the corridor to be declared abandoned and lost to adverse possession by adjacent property owners under the railbanking rules, he said.
“This is an outcome that RFTA must do its best to avoid,” Blankenship wrote in the letter, which served as the transit authority’s formal comment on the South Bridge EA.
The South Bridge EA, spearheaded by the city of Glenwood Springs, Garfield County and CDOT, identified a preferred secondary route from the south Glenwood and Four Mile areas west of the Roaring Fork River to a new bridge near the municipal airport, and connection to State Highway 82.
The new road would cross over the Rio Grande Trail just south of the existing Holy Cross Energy headquarters to a new Highway 82 intersection.
That crossing, as proposed, would be fine for the existing trail, but would not be adequate to accommodate future rail service, Blankenship said.
“RFTA staff recognizes the need for this project, is supportive of it, and wants to work with the city and others to help achieve it,” he said. “However, RFTA’s team of railroad legal and engineering consultants that reviewed the EA on RFTA’s behalf, expressed reservations about the current plan in terms of its potential impact on the rail corridor’s railbanked status.”
One solution, he said, would be to escrow some of the project money to make the necessary improvements in the future should rail become feasible.
While the city and county, along with a $5 million federal earmark to study the route, have gone to prepare the EA and do some of the initial engineering, a source of funding to build the estimated $40 million South Bridge project has not been identified.
Glenwood City Councilman Ted Edmonds, who is also the city’s representative on the inter-governmental RFTA board, said it’s a difficult issue, but one he hopes the city will be able to resolve with RFTA.
“I believe the South Bridge project is very important to the city,” he said. “It provides the only feasible second way out of that part of Glenwood and Four Mile, and will go a long way to solve some of our traffic congestion problems.”
However, the Rio Grande Trail is also an important amenity for the city and the entire Roaring Fork Valley, and should not be jeopardized, Edmonds said.
“My hope is that we can work this out and have both the South Bridge and not jeopardize the integrity of the trail,” he said.
Blankenship said he is also hopeful that the project consultants can address RFTA’s concerns.
“We will work with CDOT and everyone else involved who wants to see that improvement happen, and try to come to a mutually acceptable solution,” Blankenship said.
He did note that RFTA is working on its long-term corridor access plan, and similar issues will need to be addressed all along the corridor, from Glenwood Springs to Woody Creek.
The city of Glenwood Springs is in the process of preparing a formal response to RFTA’s concerns, according to city manager Jeff Hecksel.