Downvalley concerns persist over RFTA access plan
The city of Glenwood Springs and other downvalley governments still need a better comfort level before they can support the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s railroad corridor Access Control Plan.
Several revisions were made to the document in response to concerns expressed earlier this year by Glenwood Springs and Carbondale officials, as well as the Garfield County commissioners, that the plan is too restrictive and cost-prohibitive for local jurisdictions and private property owners.
RFTA worked over the summer with representatives of those entities and other member governments to make the plan less rigid in terms of allowing access across the Rio Grande Trail, which now occupies the railbanked corridor.
The result is a plan that attempts to address those concerns, while also providing the necessary protections to keep the former rail corridor intact and leave it available for potential future rail reactivation, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship and Assistant Director Angela Henderson said during a presentation at the Thursday RFTA board meeting in Carbondale.
But a new round of formal comments after the revised plan was released in late September suggest that the local government concerns have not completely gone away.
“You have gone to great lengths to find common ground and address some of our concerns,” said Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba, who sits as the city’s representative on the RFTA board.
“I’m not sure the city of Glenwood Springs is there yet,” he said of the city’s willingness to join what is required to be a unanimous vote of the eight-member RFTA board to approve the updated Access Control Plan.
An initial review of the revised plan Thursday was to be followed by more board discussion in December and a final public hearing and vote at the Jan. 14, 2016, meeting.
Instead, that vote is likely to be put off until March.
Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt said she, too, was hoping for a more detailed presentation on what was changed from the original draft access plan that was released last spring.
“A lot of us weren’t that deeply involved,” she said of the changes that resulted from the follow-up work group meetings, which mostly involved city and county staff members for each of the member governments.
Whitsitt suggested the board be presented with a “line-by-line” review of “what’s been changed, what is being considered, what is still being questioned and what’s being resolved.”
Blankenship agreed, adding, “We don’t want to bring the plan up for adoption if it’s clear that’s not going to happen, especially when one vote shoots it down.”
RFTA’s bylaws related to the rail corridor require that the access plan be approved unanimously by the board.
One lingering question for Glenwood Springs in particular, though not directly tied to the Access Control Plan itself, is how RFTA is handling negotiations with property owners in the Cole Subdivision in south Glenwood.
There, and in a few other sections along the rail corridor, the historic, late-1800s federal land grant easement extends into what ended up being platted as private property in the ensuing years.
To rectify that, RFTA has been working to obtain legal property descriptions in those areas and will have to negotiate with each individual landowner to give them clear title to their properties while still preserving a 100-foot rail/trail easement.
Ultimately, because federal land grants were involved, congressional approval will be needed in order to relinquish portions of the rail easement to the adjacent property owners.
“Most of the people I have spoken with [in the Cole Subdivision] would sign that kind of a deed tomorrow, if they could,” Gamba said.
Until then, he said the city remains unwilling to sign off on the access plan.
“It’s something that protects us [RFTA] from potential issues if we decide that railbanking isn’t the best way to preserve the corridor,” Gamba said of his and other elected officials’ desire to do away with railbanking altogether as a means of preserving the corridor.
Railbanking keeps the federal land grants in place and keeps the rail corridor intact, which is why RFTA must be careful that any new crossings are not viewed as severing the rail line.
However, RFTA could preserve the corridor by eventually purchasing the federal grant portions of the line that would otherwise revert to adjacent property owners if railbanking were removed.
Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot, who chairs the RFTA board, said another concern continues to be the design guidelines for new crossings.
The design standards come into play for local governments attempting to gain access across the corridor, including for Carbondale’s proposed Industry Way connection to the center part of town, and for Glenwood Springs’ South Bridge project and the planned Eighth Street connection.
“The design guidelines are really meant to be advisory in nature,” Blankenship said.
In some cases, a grade-separated crossing is recommended in order to accommodate the potential for future rail service.
“But some of those things are not necessarily relevant to what’s going on today,” he said of the existing trail use.
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