New RFTA access plan to go to vote next month | PostIndependent.com

New RFTA access plan to go to vote next month

Bryce Vyhlidal, left, his brother Paysln and mom Jennifer walk home from school on the bike path that follows the Rio Grande railroad corridor near 14th Street behind Glenwood Springs High School.

A new draft of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority's railroad corridor access control plan should serve to address concerns raised by Glenwood Springs about securing current and future crossings, including the Eighth Street crossing.

That crossing in particular, which the city hopes to make a permanent street following its initial use for the Grand Avenue bridge detour later this year, has been a concern for Glenwood as the controversial document has made its way through several drafts since the access plan update process began nearly three years ago.

Other future crossings that would be addressed by the access control plan include the proposed South Bridge connection to Colorado 82, which crosses the Rio Grande Trail that runs along the corridor, and the city's long-range plan for a vehicle bridge over the Roaring Fork River at 14th Street.

Carbondale has also sought to protect current and future crossings under the plan, as has Garfield County, which is not a member of RFTA.

Language in the document now allows public easements to be granted by RFTA, either with an at-grade or grade-separated crossing of the historic rail line, as long as it can be modified to allow future rail service, and not at the expense of local jurisdictions, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship explained to RFTA board members Thursday.

"What it says is that, if you meet the design guidelines, whether crossing at grade or separated, RFTA will consider granting an easement," Blankenship said.

If in the future RFTA were to consider reactivating freight rail service, or more likely pursue a light rail system using the corridor, the cost to upgrade the crossing to rail standards would be borne by the operators of the rail system, not the local community, he said.

Most likely that would mean lumping the cost into a tax proposal to fund light rail, which would ultimately be up to voters to decide, Blankenship said.

Based on a review from RFTA's attorney on railroad matters, the language also seems to pass the legal muster necessary to protect the corridor's railbanked status, he said.

It's a key break in the negotiations that could result in the unanimous vote needed to approve the access control plan. That was a requirement for any changes to the plan agreed to by the seven area governments that originally purchased the 34-mile-long Rio Grande Railroad corridor in 1998.

The plan is meant to both preserve the rail line for future rail and trail use, as well as address local concerns by Glenwood and other member governments regarding crossings.

A vote is expected to occur on April 13 when the access control plan is tentatively to be considered on first reading by the RFTA board, followed by final consideration at the May 9 board meeting. The schedule is subject to change if the board decides it wants to discuss a pending update to the trail management plan ahead of the adoption of the corridor access control plan.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba, who sits as the city's representative on the RFTA board, indicated that the city's plans for the crossings in question should not preclude use of the corridor for rail service, and especially light rail. Design standards for light rail are far more flexible, and less expensive, than for freight rail, he said.

Gamba did ask if the access control plan could include a reference to seeking alternative ways to preserve the corridor in the future through means other than railbanking. The legal designation keeps the corridor in place but also comes with strict provisions to keep it from being severed, which is why any new crossings have to be carefully considered.

If a legal case were to be made that the line has been severed, and thus abandoned, approximately 7 miles of the corridor at different points up the valley could revert to adjacent landowners. Gamba has argued that RFTA could just as easily negotiate with landowners to buy those sections and still preserve the corridor for trail and light rail use, without the more strict freight rail provisions that come with railbanking.

"That way we can quit pretending that there will ever be heavy freight rail on this line, and design these crossings for the purposes of light rail," Gamba said.

Other RFTA board members said that can still be an objective without being specifically mentioned in the access control plan.