Rail corridor’s web of agreements

Dan Blankenship
Dan Blankenship

I read Floyd Diemoz’s recent letter in the Post Independent. He was correct that the RFTA letter sent to Mike McDill, city engineer, dated Feb. 10, 2010, indicated that the rail corridor would be unavailable for the city’s alternative route. However, it appears he was unaware that on November 18, 2010, a letter of clarification was sent to Mr. McDill that said, “However, insofar as other proposed transportation-related uses within the rail corridor would not jeopardize RFTA’s ability to reinstitute rail service in the future by making it technically or financially infeasible, it is not believed that they would be precluded by any of the agreements or regulations governing the corridor.”

He may also be unaware that the Glenwood Springs alternative route, from the Wye Area to the vicinity 23rd and 27th streets, was originally cited as an approved use of the corridor by the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority (RFRHA) in its 2000 Comprehensive Plan as follows:

“Highway 82 Alternative Route: On Oct. 21, 1999, the Glenwood Springs City Council adopted Resolution #99-11 designating the railroad right-of-way from the Colorado River to the vicinity of 23rd and 27th Street as the preferred alternative route for Highway 82. In addition, Glenwood Springs’ participation in RFRHA had been conditioned upon the possible use of the railroad right-of-way for an alternative route for Highway 82, provided that such an alternative route would not preclude the use of the right-of-way for rail or trail purposes.

“The use of the railroad right-of-way for placement of a Highway 82 alternative route is still in the early stages of design. In addition, no funding for the project has been determined. The cost for construction of a Highway 82 alternative route along the railroad right-of-way is estimated at between $55 and $100 million. Pursing the ultimate placement of the Highway 82 alternative route is seen as a joint effort between Glenwood Springs and RFRHA. Including the Highway 82 alternative route within the Comprehensive Plan, although anticipated by both parties during the purchase, in no way binds RFRHA to participating in any future funding of the planning or capital expenses related to construction. As plans are refined and finalized, both partners will work together to insure that the project fulfills the mutual goals of each entity.”

When the corridor was purchased in 1997, there were numerous agreements entered into by RFRHA and its constituent governments (including Glenwood Springs) that established a future mass transit system as the primary use of the corridor and a trail and other public uses as secondary uses. In planning for future uses of the corridor, RFRHA and its constituent governments agreed that they would not do anything that would jeopardize the primary use of the corridor.

When RFRHA was merged into the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA), and dissolved in the fall of 2001, a tremendous amount of institutional memory was lost. The RFRHA board was disbanded and the staff and attorney were let go. In addition, the elected officials and staffs of RFRHA’s constituent governments subsequently turned over and knowledge of prior agreements and commitments faded as well. RFTA has gradually been working to regain this institutional background and, admittedly, it has made a few missteps along the way. The Feb. 10, 2010, letter from the RFTA board to Mr. McDill may have been one of these missteps. However, RFTA has been developing a better understanding of the prior agreements and regulations governing the corridor, and I believe it is working as cooperatively as it can with local governments and private property owners, based upon what it currently believes to be necessary to preserve the corridor for its primary use.

To say that preserving a valuable 34-mile public asset for future generations is complicated is an understatement at best. The loss of big chunks of the corridor due to inadequate policies governing the uses of it would amount to a breach of RFTA’s fiduciary responsibility. Allowing the corridor to become unsuitable for its primary use as a future mass transit system by placement of physical obstacles in the corridor that would be costly to repair or remove, could also seem shortsighted.

Given that the Glenwood Springs’ alternative route on the railroad corridor, from the Wye Area to the vicinity of 23rd and 27th Streets, was authorized by RFRHA in 2000, why do you suppose the project has never moved forward? Perhaps, there are three primary reasons why the project has never advanced:

1. The Union Pacific Railroad holds an exclusive easement on the Wye Area property from the mainline to about 13th Street. Nothing can happen within that area without UP’s consent, and its consent could be very costly. The UP’s easement is also the primary reason that the Eighth Street crossing project has faced so many challenges. RFRHA and its constituent governments (including Glenwood Springs), allowed Southern Pacific Transportation Co. to retain an exclusive easement on the Wye area, and this easement was subsequently assigned to UP.

2. Neither the city nor CDOT has identified the funding for the alternative route project.

3. There does not appear to be community consensus about having an alternative route next to the Roaring Fork River.

If construction of the alternative route in the corridor from the Wye area to the vicinity of 23rd and 27th Streets would not preclude the use of the right-of-way for rail or trail purposes, I believe RFTA could most likely support the project once issues 1-3, cited above, have been addressed.

Dan Blankenship is CEO of RAFTA.

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