RFTA at ‘watershed’ in history of railroad ownership
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority staff will work with Glenwood Springs and other member governments to advance certain projects that require crossing the Rio Grande corridor in a timely manner without being too burdensome, CEO Dan Blankenship said during the monthly RFTA board meeting Thursday.
At the same time, the agency should seek clarification from the federal Surface Transportation Board on what exactly might constitute a severance of the inactive, but legally railbanked corridor between Glenwood Springs and Woody Creek that now serves as the Rio Grande recreational trail, he said.
“These kinds of measures could easily take a year or more to figure out,” Blankenship said of that process, plus a suggestion by some RFTA members that the agency explore means besides railbanking to keep the corridor intact.
That, too, will require extensive research before any decisions can be made on taking a new course of action.
In the meantime, Blankenship acknowledged a need for communities to move forward on public infrastructure projects, such as Glenwood’s Eighth Street connection and the South Bridge project.
Blankenship also addressed objections by downvalley governments to a draft Access Control Plan that puts limits on new railroad crossings, saying it is too restrictive when it comes to adjacent public and private land development.
“While our intentions are good, we do have to look at how we move forward with the plan in a way that doesn’t negatively impact our constituent governments,” Blankenship said at the meeting in Carbondale.
Ultimately, it will require a unanimous vote of the eight-member RFTA board, made up of municipalities from Aspen to New Castle, plus Pitkin and Eagle counties, to approve the access plan and any future revisions to the corridor comprehensive plan, he noted.
For that reason, it makes sense to “collaborate and cooperate” with local governments to determine how best to allow certain projects to proceed, he said, without jeopardizing RFTA’s obligations to protect the corridor for future mass transit and/or freight rail reactivation.
Currently, railbanking is the mechanism to that, Blankenship said, calling it a “watershed” point in RFTA’s 13-year history of managing the rail corridor to consider some different means of doing that.
Glenwood Springs City Councilman Mike Gamba, who is the city’s newly appointed representative on the RFTA board, said it’s not Glenwood’s intention in objecting to the access plan to oppose the trail, or even the future potential of a commuter or light-rail passenger system.
“I don’t believe anyone who has raised these concerns wants to see the corridor jeopardized,” Gamba said. “The policy now to accomplish that is with railbanking, and I would like to see some background on why that’s the best strategy.”
That strategy, and the proposed access plan provisions used to protect that status, “is causing adverse impact, and I don’t believe it’s beneficial to the residents of the valley.”
Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot, who chairs the RFTA board, joined Glenwood officials in requesting RFTA seek another legal opinion regarding railbanking.
“We have taken a very conservative approach in using that” means to preserve the corridor, Bernot said. “But it can be quite onerous and detrimental to some of our communities, and that’s a problem.”
Charles Montange, RFTA’s legal counsel when it comes to railbanking, said it’s important to remember that the Rio Grande corridor was purchased as an operating rail line with the intent to preserve it as a transportation corridor, not just for a trail.
“If you de-railbank this corridor, you are going to lose those federal land grant sections,” Montange said of the roughly 7 miles of the 33-mile-long corridor that exist under the original late 1800s federal land grant that created the railroad.
If a claim can be made that the corridor has been severed and the future prospect of rail reactivation abandoned, those sections would revert to adjacent landowners, per a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The reason some proposed corridor crossings are being held up is because rail engineers have advised RFTA that those projects are inconsistent with rail reactivation, and thus jeopardize the railbanked status, Montange said.
The RFTA board is likely to continue the access plan and railbanking discussion at its April and May meetings. A formal public comment period regarding the Access Control Plan remains open through May 9.
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