For rail or for trail?
The use of the railroad corridor that runs 41 miles from Aspen to Glenwood Springs threatens to drive a wedge between the two groups who would benefit most from its development.
Although debate has remained civil, passions are flowing behind the scenes among one faction promoting a valleywide trail and another advocating preservation of the corridor for commuter rail service.
Once natural allies, the two groups have become wary of one another over the question of how to use the 10-foot-wide, raised rail bed. Train proponents want that bed reserved exclusively for rail service. They say the trail should be built elsewhere in the railroad corridor, which in most places is about 100 feet wide.
Trail advocates want to use that rail bed for the trail wherever they face constraints, such as wetlands and steep embankments, that pinch the corridor and make it impossible to build the trail along side the tracks.
The Pitkin County Trails and Open Space Program used the rail bed extensively to construct 11.5 miles of trails from Woody Creek to Emma. It had that option because it pitched in $500,000 to acquire the railroad right of way, which was purchased in the mid-1990s by a consortium of local governments.
Now that trail construction is being proposed downvalley from Pitkin County, the heat is on the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors to decide if the rail bed can be used for a trail.
The board voted last month to allow parts of a proposed 1.1-mile trail from Emma to Hooks Bridge to encroach on the rail bed. Without that approval, a permit would have been required from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build in a wetland, a process that is both costly and time-consuming.
Valleywide trail advocates such as John Hoffmann of Carbondale contend that prohibiting use of the rail bed would substantially slow and possibly kill extension of the trail to Glenwood Springs. He welcomed the RFTA board’s decision as a possible precedent for remaining work on the trail in Eagle and Garfield counties.
But Jim Breasted was so angry with the RFTA board’s decision that he resigned from the organization’s Citizens Advisory Board.
“What the bike trail does is create a constituency that eventually opposes rail,” said Breasted, a longtime Aspenite who now lives in Carbondale.
Once the trail is built it will naturally enjoy enormous popularity, Breasted noted. Trail users will vehemently fight any threat to their amenity.
If portions of the trail are built on the rail bed, users will object to tearing up the trail to restore tracks for commuter rail service, Breasted said.
“Now the board has taken an action which, in my opinion, will result in further obstruction to the possibility of rail, as if there were not enough obstruction from actual opponents,” Breasted wrote in his resignation letter.
Breasted maintained that the RFTA board’s primary duty concerning the railroad corridor is preserving it for transit.
“Instead of preserving the right-of-way you are about to chop it up in pieces and by so doing you will violate the public trust and subvert the whole idea behind the public purchase of this valuable 41-mile piece of land,” his letter said.
Steve Smith of Glenwood Springs remains on RFTA’s Citizens Advisory Board and intends to keep lobbying against use of the rail bed for the trail. Smith stressed that he isn’t against the trail. “We just need to take the time and do it right,” he said.
Doing it right to him means spending more time planning and more money constructing the trail within the corridor but off the rail bed.
“It avoids pitting people against one another,” said Smith. “It’s not necessary to do that.”
Smith said that a conflict doesn’t exist along much of the 15-or-so miles of corridor that have no trail yet. The corridor will usually support both a trail and the rail bed.
In the spots where conflicts exists, he agrees with Breasted that RFTA’s primary goal should be preserving the continuity of the rail. Smith said the problem isn’t an engineering one. The trail can easily be ripped up and the rail bed restored for train use.
The problem is political and financial. “People will defend that trail and not want it ripped up for rail,” Smith said.
And years from now when a train may be feasible, it will be a lot more costly to reroute sections of the trail off the rail bed than it would be to do it correctly now, according to Smith. He views it as more fiscally responsible to build the trail without using the rail bed.
The RFTA board’s policy on use of the rail bed has been “hit and miss, case by case,” said board chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt. She said a policy will likely be set July 16 when RFTA holds a special meeting to discuss a number of policies or at its next regular meeting.
Whitsitt indicated that she personally supports direction that will expedite completion of the valleywide trail, although she shares concerns about obstructing the train.
“I would love to see the trail built correctly at this time, but the reality is we don’t have the resources to build it like we would when the train is going in,” she said.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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