Still no RFTA decision on rail corridor access plan
A required update to the Rio Grande railroad corridor Access Control Plan, as currently worded, “lacks sufficient protections” to keep the corridor intact for future commuter rail service, asserts Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron.
“I feel like this document is written as if rail is never coming,” Skadron said during a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board meeting in Carbondale on Thursday. “If we believe rail is not coming, that’s a policy discussion at this board level.”
As worded, Skadron said the access plan could allow a proliferation of public and private corridor crossings along the length of the 34-mile historic rail line. That could possibly undermine RFTA’s ability to defend a legal challenge to the railbanked status that preserves the federal land grant portions of the corridor.
Rather than risk a veto vote, since approval of the revised Access Control Plan requires unanimous consent of the seven jurisdictions that purchased the corridor in 1998, the board agreed to continue the matter for one more month.
Before the June 8 meeting, Skadron said he will provide what he says are some basic wording tweaks intended to strengthen the corridor protections and bring Aspen’s vote into the yes column.
As now worded, though, Skadron said the document results in a “loss of discretion” by RFTA to deny a public easement or private license to establish new or modified rail crossings.
Use of terms like “common sense,” and “may” or “should” instead of “will,” also need to be cleaned up, he said.
Further, the plan fails to address costs associated with removing a crossing if a license or easement is ever revoked.
Fellow RFTA members urged caution in making any major changes that could prompt downvalley governments to vote against the plan. Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Garfield County, which is not a member of RFTA, had objected to an earlier version of the access plan update, saying it was too restrictive.
“It totally depends on what the new proposed language is,” said Glenwood Springs Mayor Mike Gamba, who sits as the Glenwood representative on the RFTA board.
Gamba noted the current versions pass three legal reviews, including by federal railbanking legal experts.
“Words have meaning … and I won’t support any changes without those words being reviewed by the attorneys,” he said.
Carbondale Mayor and RFTA representative Dan Richardson said he believes the plan is a reasonable compromise. He and the RFTA board chairman, Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, said it’s time to adopt the new Access Control Plan after more than three years of delays.
“Our attorneys have signed off on this, and I believe it is defensible,” Newman said. “Compromise has to be made sometimes to move things forward.”
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said the new document is far superior to the 2005 Access Control Plan that would remain in place if the updated plan is rejected.
“While it’s imperative that we preserve the corridor for all current and future uses for generations to come, the access plan cannot be something that creates major divisions in the communities that have to live with it on a daily basis,” Blankenship said.
Time is also of the essence, he said, because RFTA officials meet with the Great Outdoors Colorado board next month and must answer whether the access plan has been updated.
As one of the original financial contributors to the $8.5 million rail corridor purchase, GOCO requires as a stipulation of its grant that the corridor comprehensive plan, including the Access Control Plan and associated trail management plan, be updated every five to 10 years.
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