Undoing RFTA railbanking complex, perilous
Suggestions that RFTA remove railbanking as a means of preserving the Rio Grande rail and trail corridor aren’t out of the question, says agency chief Dan Blankenship.
But the matter is complicated by a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and doing so would require an extensive planning effort to work with adjacent landowners to acquire parts of the corridor that aren’t technically owned by the public transit agency, he said.
“It’s fine to talk about something different, but that something different will be expensive, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Blankenship said in an interview with the Post Independent this week.
Blankenship responded to downvalley elected officials who commented at a roundtable meeting last week that they want the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to find other, less restrictive ways to keep intact the 33-mile-long stretch of the Rio Grande corridor that’s held by RFTA.
In particular, officials from Glenwood Springs, Garfield County and Carbondale have objected to an updated draft Access Control Plan that puts limits on public and private crossings of the corridor, due to RFTA’s obligations under the railbanked legal status of the inactive freight line.
Related design criteria will mean about $5.5 million in additional cost for the city of Glenwood Springs to cross the trail and build its planned South Bridge project, said City Councilman Mike Gamba.
If the ultimate goal is to protect the existing recreational trail, “For that cost, I would think we could secure the corridor forever, without being concerned that it’s preserved for a future railroad,” Gamba said during the roundtable meeting.
Gamba was appointed last week by his fellow city councilors as Glenwood’s new representative on RFTA’s governing board. The board is scheduled to discuss and give direction on the access plan when it meets Thursday morning in Carbondale. A public comment period regarding the plan is open through May 9.
FEDERAL LAND GRANTS
Blankenship said the biggest challenge to removing railbanking, if that’s where the board wants to go, is that RFTA, which controls and maintains the corridor from Glenwood Springs to Woody Creek, does not own outright about 7 miles worth of the corridor.
Those sections exist in different-size chunks along the corridor, and are held under the original federal land grants made in the late 1800s that helped establish the early railroads in the Roaring Fork Valley, Blankenship said.
A Supreme Court ruling last year (Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States) did “change the focus” of the Access Control Plan, he said.
The ruling held that any land grants associated with railroad lines that are declared abandoned would revert to adjacent property owners.
As long as railbanking is in place and it can be legally defended that the rail corridor has not been severed in any way that would prevent the reactivation of a freight railroad, those land grants remain in place.
“We could go to the (Surface Transportation Board) ourselves and declare the railroad abandoned,” Blankenship said. “While there’s really not a desire on the part of RFTA to run freight, railbanking is the mechanism used to preserve the corridor.”
But it would be unwise to do so without extensive research to determine who owns adjacent land in those impacted areas and negotiate up-front agreements to secure easements for the existing trail, he said.
“The (court) ruling upped the ante, because of the prospect that there might be claims of abandonment,” Blankenship said. “That’s why we have emphasized the need to preserve the railbanked status.”
RESOLVING TITLE ISSUES
One such segment of the corridor that involves a 200-foot-wide federal land grant is in the Coles Subdivision in south Glenwood Springs, across from the Roaring Fork Marketplace. Several properties there, including parts of some houses, appear to lie within the corridor, based on a 2012 survey conducted on behalf of RFTA.
Homeowners in the area have objected to the survey and the provisions of the subsequent access plan, and are asking that RFTA work with them to rectify the situation and clean up their land titles.
“We, the property owners, have no problem regarding the trail right of way as it exists,” one Coles homeowner, Robbi O’Meara, said during the meeting last week. “But RFTA’s proposed ownership atlas depicts the taking of our homes.”
RFTA officials have said it’s the agency’s intent to work with those and other affected landowners to resolve any title issues. But that process will take time, they said.
Blankenship said it’s also important to remember the history behind the 1996 purchase of the railroad corridor from the former Southern Pacific Railroad by a consortium of valley governments.
The original intent, he said, was to preserve the corridor for mass transit use. Secondary was its potential use for a trail, open space and conservation purposes, he said.
The $8.5 million purchase of the rail line also included $3 million from the Colorado Department of Transportation, contingent on its used for transportation purposes, which the eventual construction of the bike trail accomplished, Blankenship noted.
Also contributing to the effort was Great Outdoors Colorado, to the tune of $2 million, on the condition that parts of the corridor be placed in a conservation easement.
As a result, “if anything were to happen that would affect those agreements, GOCO could ask for its money back,” Blankenship said.
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