Rail corridor access plan clears 1st hurdle
An updated plan to control access across the Rio Grande Trail and preserve the historic railroad corridor for future rail use cleared the high bar necessary Thursday to be adopted by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s multijurisdictional board of directors.
However, the city of Aspen and possibly Snowmass Village remain potential veto votes among the original seven RFTA member governments that could kill the much-debated revision to the 2005 Access Control Plan when it comes up for final consideration next month.
The plan passed on first reading at RFTA’s monthly board meeting in Carbondale with the unanimous vote needed among representatives from Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, Snowmass, Aspen and Eagle and Pitkin counties to ultimately approve the plan.
But Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron advised that he could decide to change his final vote at the May 11 meeting unless he is assured in the meantime that the plan affords adequate protections to keep the railroad corridor from being deemed severed, which would be in violation of the federal railbanking agreement that keeps the line intact.
Skadron said some of the language in the document, especially as it relates to granting easements to local governments for streets and other types of corridor crossings, seems a bit soft in that regard.
“Giving away these easements appears to put undue pressure on our ability to maintain the railbanked status … which makes me uncomfortable,” Skadron said. “If we don’t proceed with a great amount of caution, we diminish the value of this asset.”
It’s a turn of the tables from two years ago when the first draft of the Access Control Plan was being debated. At that time, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale had expressed serious reservations, saying the plan was too restrictive when it came to improving existing street crossings, and especially for building new ones. Garfield County, which is not a member of RFTA, had also objected to restrictions not only on public crossings, but on landowners whose property access crosses the corridor.
Since then, Glenwood Springs officials have offered extensive input that would allow for new easements, such as the one granted by RFTA for a permanent Eighth Street crossing of the so-called railroad “wye” area.
Corridor crossings for the planned South Bridge connection to Colorado 82, a potential new crossing at 14th Street in Glenwood and eventual improvements at the 23rd and 27th street trail crossings have also been a concern. Likewise, Carbondale has wanted to preserve the ability to build an eventual crossing from Industry Place to Merrill Avenue.
Another key concern for local jurisdictions was to avoid having to bear the cost of upgrading crossings in the future if rail service is ever activated, whether that’s passenger or freight, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship noted.
The new access plan makes it clear that RFTA will be the one to bear those costs if a rail system is ever built, most likely through whatever funding mechanism is put before voters, he said.
“This is a lot stronger than any other document we’ve had before, and I think we have all the tools we need to preserve the corridor,” Blankenship said, adding that the latest draft has been reviewed by multiple attorneys who found it to be adequate.
The Access Control Plan was last updated in 2005, and is supposed to be updated every 10 years. To do so, however, a unanimous vote is needed among the seven charter governments that banded together in 1998 to purchase the 34-mile-long railroad corridor.
The plan is meant to both preserve the rail line for future rail and trail use, as well as address local concerns by member governments regarding crossings.
In doing so, however, provisions are necessary to preserve the railbanked status of the corridor, which comes into play for about seven disjointed miles of the historic rail line that are held under federal land grants. If someone were to make a case in federal court that the line has been severed, per a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling those sections would revert to adjacent landowners, eliminating both the trail and future use of the corridor for a commuter rail system.
Although railbanking is the current means to preserve the corridor, Glenwood Springs Mayor Mike Gamba, who represents the city on the RFTA board, has offered that RFTA should instead figure out a way to purchase the land grant sections of the corridor to preserve the trail use, and do away with the restrictive railbank provisions.
“That’s a worthy discussion that I think we should have,” Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board member George Newman said.
Added Carbondale Mayor and RFTA rep Dan Richardson, “Railbanking is the tool we have now to protect the corridor, and feel confident that this document does that.”