RFTA: Vigilance required to keep Rio Grande Trail intact
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials said Thursday they must diligently regulate the Rio Grande railroad corridor so it isn’t lost for use as a popular trail and possible future railroad service.
After a few weeks of the agency being the target of stinging criticism, RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship told the board of directors that RFTA cannot risk having the federal government declare the corridor abandoned. That could happen, he said, if RFTA doesn’t correct encroachments by adjacent private landowners and set design standards for private driveways, public roads and utility easements that cross the corridor. RFTA grants licenses for access and makes parties sign agreements to honor its conditions.
“We’re being transparent, I think, about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Blankenship told the board.
That transparency has generated some heat.
The governments of Garfield County, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale have criticized RFTA’s access control plan for driving up costs of public road improvements that cross the corridor and for various effects on private landowners. Carbondale Mayor and RFTA board Chairwoman Stacey Bernot said the access control plan is “overburdening” other governments and individuals.
“It’s a shift in how it’s managed. It’s a shift in responsibility,” she said.
The goal in future negotiations between the governments and RFTA should be to ease burden without risking abandonment of the corridor, she said.
Blankenship said he is uncomfortable when RFTA is at odds with some of its member jurisdictions, but he was adamant that RFTA must be diligent about access control. Some landowners have openly urged banding together and making a legal claim that RFTA has abandoned portions of the corridor and, therefore, cannot rail bank the rest, he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March 2014 that federally granted rights of way that were abandoned by railroads can rightfully be claimed by private landowners with a valid interest in the property. The ruling has the potential to affect numerous rails-to-trails projects, especially in the West, according to the Rails To Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that was a party in the case.
RFTA oversees 33.5 miles of corridor from Glenwood Springs to Woody Creek. It owns about 80 percent of that fee simple from a purchase for $8.5 million from the Southern Pacific Transportation Co., Blankenship said. About 7 miles of the corridor was involved in federal land grants to the railroad so service could be established in the valley in the 1800s. Those 7 miles are in bits and fragments.
Blankenship and RFTA Attorney Paul Taddune said the agency’s consultants — an attorney and engineers with expertise in rail banking — have said there has been no abandonment or severing of the corridor under the current circumstances.
But Blankenship said an adjacent property owner with deep pockets or a consortium of owners could challenge the status and ask the federal Surface Transportation Board to declare the corridor abandoned.
If such a maneuver was successful, private landowners could close parts of the Rio Grande Trail, according to Mike Hermes, facilities manager for RFTA. The 7 miles of fragments of the corridor involved in federal lands grants would have to be purchased through negotiations or condemnation, he said.
“That’s a really big number with lots of zeros on it — five or six,” Hermes said.
In addition, grants acquired to help buy the corridor would have to be repaid. Great Outdoors Colorado gave a grant for $1.5 million. Current repayment cost with interest would exceed $6 million. Colorado Department of Transportation funds also would have to be repaid, according to Hermes.
Several RFTA board members expressed concern about RFTA taking the necessary steps to keep rail banking valid. Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said the agency cannot risk losing control of a world-class trail. “It’s definitely something we want to be careful about,” he said.
“Do we know exactly what we need to do to screw this up?” asked Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt.
Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said city officials want to ensure the corridor remains intact.
However, RFTA board members also were sympathetic to the downvalley governments’ concerns and the rights of adjacent landowners to be informed about changing conditions of access control. The board directed the staff to extend a comment period on the plan for 90 days rather than 60 proposed by the staff. That will push the deadline into May.
The staff was also directed to go out of its way to make RFTA officials available to the public in various meetings over the next six weeks and to notify adjacent property owners about the meetings.
“People are busy working, living, grinding away,” Bernot said. “They might not be paying attention.”
Officials from Garfield County, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale are meeting March 4 to talk about their concerns. It’s anticipated that each government will file its own official comments on RFTA’s plan.
Consensus might not be possible, said Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley. “I can understand where some jurisdictions might not be able to approve this,” he said.
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