Time to ditch railbanking for RFTA corridor?
Downvalley officials are seriously questioning whether railbanking is the best way to preserve the Rio Grande Trail corridor, and if the local governments that own it shouldn’t explore other ways to maintain the existing trail and leave it at that.
“We’re spending millions and millions of dollars to accommodate some fantasy freight rail that’s never going to happen,” Glenwood Springs City Councilman Mike Gamba said during a joint “roundtable” discussion among city, Garfield County, town of Carbondale and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority representatives Wednesday night.
Gamba and others said the money that would need to be spent by public and private landowners on new grade-separated and consolidated crossings to conform with RFTA’s proposed Access Control Plan, all aimed at preserving future rail service, is unreasonable.
That money might be better spent to acquire the roughly six or seven miles of the 42-mile-long corridor that could revert to adjacent property owners if railbanking is abandoned, Gamba said.
“I think we have to look at whether there is another strategy to achieve that, and do it less expensively,” he said.
Garfield County commissioners, who have also objected to the draft Access Plan that was released in January, called the joint meeting for local elected officials and the public to share concerns and weigh formal comments on the plan. RFTA has extended the public comment period until May 9.
The plan, as proposed, “is a burden on private landowners and it puts a lot of these people here tonight at risk,” said County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky.
“It’s a takings, and it needs to be fixed,” said Jankovsky, who vowed to “fight tooth and nail” to put up a legal challenge to the corridor’s railbanked status.
Robert Burry, who is trying to sell his ranch property that sits adjacent to the rail corridor between Cattle Creek and Aspen Glen for potential development, is one of the affected landowners.
“I have read through the plan, and I believe it is an overreach,” Burry said, pointing to language in the plan that calls for protecting the scenic value along the recreational trail.
“If that’s not overreach, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Railbanking is the legal mechanism that keeps the original federal land grants that were made to railroad companies more than a century ago in place, in the event freight rail service is reactivated, or a commuter rail becomes feasible.
That means keeping the existing railroad grade and other infrastructure in place, “as if you’re operating a freight railroad,” said Charles Montange, the attorney who helped secure railbanking for the corridor when it changed hands from the former Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority to RFTA.
“The further you ask us to move away from that … pretty soon it’s a death by a thousand cuts,” Montange, who was asked to attend the meeting Wednesday by RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship, said of any compromising of the corridor with additional at-grade crossings.
“If you want to get rid of (railbanking), then just say that,” he added. “But to maintain it requires that certain obligations be met.”
Blankenship reiterated that it is not the intent of the Access Control Plan to deny access to people’s property, take people’s homes whose property encroaches on the historic right of way, or cause undue hardship for local governments wanting to build new streets that cross the corridor.
“We’re just doing what we think is necessary to protect the corridor,” he said. “And we have a very strong commitment to preserving and protecting that corridor.”
But the Access Plan, as proposed, does have the affect of precluding community development along the corridor, Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot said.
“We are in full support of preserving the corridor,” she said. “It is a great asset and amenity for our community.
“We do need a realistic, workable plan, but this goes overboard to protect the corridor by preventing (new) crossings,” Bernot said. “With this plan, RFTA is now a major player in land-use planning in the valley.”
Bernot and others called on RFTA to scrap the plan as proposed and start over with a process that would require each of the affected jurisdiction to agree to the plan.
The RFTA board, which is made up of appointed representatives from each of the member governments from Aspen to New Castle, will ultimately decide whether to adopt the access plan, Blankenship said.
A series of community open houses is being planned later this month up and down the valley to explain the plan and its intent, he said.
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