Colson: Rio Grande Trail is what it ought to be |

Colson: Rio Grande Trail is what it ought to be

with John Colson

The land speculators and their apologists of the lower Roaring Fork Valley are getting a little hysterical these days, if recent blatherings about the uses of the Rio Grande Trail are any indication of their collective mental state.

I refer, in case you haven’t heard or read, to the ongoing controversy surrounding the so-called Access Control Plan for roughly 33 miles of mostly paved trail that has been laid over the old Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) Railroad bed between Woody Creek and Glenwood Springs.

It’s been a good long while since that designation (D&RGW) has been applied to what has been a valley-long path for hikers and bikers since before the turn of this century.

Prior to creation of the trail, the rails carried trains bearing ore from the Pitkin Iron Corporation’s iron mine up Castle Creek, a few miles from the ghost town of Ashcroft, and the Coal Basin coal mines up the Crystal River near Redstone, two mining operations that were under the same corporate umbrella.

But both those mining facilities were abandoned in the late 1900s, a circumstance that led directly to the purchase of the rail right of way by a public entity known as the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority (RFRHA), later transmogrified to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA), the valley’s bus company that now controls the right of way and has been managing it as a “rail-banked” property being preserved for the possible future resumption of freight and passenger train travel in the valley.

At a recent meeting of RFTA officials with other government types in Glenwood Springs, the private-property-rights crowd came out in force to dominate the conversation and put RFTA in its place, which in the view of its critics would be to stick to running buses and allow the rail corridor ownership to revert to those who own property alongside the trail.

In addition to the property-rights angle, the elected leaders of the city of Glenwood Springs and Garfield County have been chafing and muttering among themselves about the public nature of the right of way ever since RFRHA bought the line back in 1997.

Garfield County has been in a state of perpetual outrage over ownership of the trail by an entity perceived as doing the bidding of Aspen and Pitkin County. It is part of an anti-Aspen, anti-Pitkin County bias that has long held sway over certain limited intellects in the lower valley.

The city, for its part, has long wanted the right of way as a possible component of a mythical bypass that would take the traffic pressure off of Grand Avenue (which also is Colorado Highway 82 as it shoots through town and heads south toward Aspen.)

But the Glenwood City Council is the very entity to blame for the fact that nothing effective has been done to create a bypass over the past half-century. And now they want to blame RFTA, which is only doing what it is legally required to do under federal rail-banking regulations, to protect the integrity of the right of way from bumbling public and private development efforts.

I notice that one area newspaper blamed RFTA for stifling development of a large parcel of land at the confluence of Cattle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, when in fact what has stymied that development has been a combination of bad economics and corporate fantasizing.

The development proposals for that property, once known as Sanders Ranch but most recently called River Edge, have been of questionable validity since the land was bought (for its water rights) by Union Oil of California back in the oil shale boom days of the late 1970s. It is perched halfway between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, and the idea of a virtual new town at that site has been nothing more than a speculator’s wet dream.

Some of those at the recent RFTA parroted that message and many other foolish notions to bolster their demand that RFTA back off from the access control plan, when to do so ultimately would mean the end of the line, so to speak, for the Rio Grande trail and for any possibility of future passenger rail service here in the valley.

That would be another bit of short-sighted policy-making by downvalley officials for whom the phrases “progress” and “irresponsible development” are interchangeable.

I should note, by way of full disclosure, that I have argued over decades that the resumption of rail service between Aspen and Glenwood Springs is the only logical use for that right of way, and a use that will do more than anything else to save this valley from the unintended consequences of traffic congestion and air pollution that come from pretending that highways are the only way for people to move around.

Anything that would get in the way of that goal is to be avoided at all costs, lest we wake up some day and realize that short-sighted profiteering has eliminated our chance to do something truly progressive, environmentally friendly and socially beneficial to all.

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