Lower valley endorses rail | AspenTimes.com

Lower valley endorses rail

“It’s so easy to kill a vision with nickels and dimes.”

With that statement, Bruce Wampler of Glenwood Springs summed up the feeling of 13 of the 14 members of the Lower Valley Citizens Rail Task Force who voted Tuesday night to endorse running a railroad from West Glenwood to Aspen.

Instead of getting bogged down in what all agreed were complicated and precarious financing plans, the 13 members voiced their support for the more appealing “vision” of the future of the valley that would be created by a train-based mass transit system.

The group, except for Stan Stevens, of Glenwood, rejected the option to merely beef up existing bus service, commonly called “RFTA on steroids.” Steven said he would have voted for rail, but didn’t believe the ridership estimates, and thus thought buses could carry the load.

By endorsing a train system on the former Rio Grande corridor, the group acknowledged it would be facing some tough obstacles to make that vision become a reality.

The group decided they could tackle at least two obstacles themselves.

Since any decision about the corridor must be approved by the eight valley governments that jointly own the land, the group decided its next step is to step into the political area and convince local politicians that rail is right for the future of the valley.

They will draft a letter, at the very least, supporting the rail option and might even show up as a group with a presentation for the Garfield County commissioners and Glenwood City Council.

Task force members have been studying the issue since January, and felt they needed to impart what they learned and their reasoning behind their rail stance to their local political representatives.

“Vision is the point,” said task force member Emmy Lerma. “Rail can work if we decide to do it.”

Throughout the meeting, members generally agreed that their initial inclination is that a rail system would be safer, more environmentally friendly and more in tune with what the valley should strive to become – to look like – in the next 20 years.

But that initial feeling was weighed against the enormous cost of a rail system, estimated at $194 million, and the political realities – some said problems – that must be overcome to get a rail line endorsed and funded by voters.

Phil Wheelock, of Glenwood, said, “this is romantic country, and it should be served in a romantic way,” which means a train. But he also worried about the “sticker shock” that comes with the train proposal.

The valley might be faced with raising at least $27 million locally for a train, noted Hal Sundin of Glenwood, with Glenwood responsible for more than $3 million of that total. “That’s a big nut to get started,” he said. “We might end up with a bus whether we want it or not, just because of the cost.”

Jan Giradot of Glenwood said that looking to the year 2020 and seeing the valley filled with hundreds of buses “can’t be allowed to happen. We have to leave our grandchildren more” than that vision.

“The bus idea is a dead end,” said Bob Boyle of Glenwood. Trying to make buses carry the mass transit load means you “eventually run out of highway” for the estimated hundreds of daily bus trips needed in 20 years, he noted.

“This valley is a perfect linear corridor for rail,” Boyle said, adding that the train offers chances to make money, with dinner trains, private cars, etc., that a bus system doesn’t. “The train offers enormous possibilities,” he said.

One possibility that is starting to get serious consideration is participation by the private sector in not only building, but running a valleywide train system, noted Steve Smith of Glenwood.

Adtranz and Siemens, two international transit and construction companies, have expressed interest in building and running the train system. That private companies whose only motive is profit are willing to look at the train option “reaffirms” the idea that its wiser in the long run to invest in the rail option, Smith noted.

And that investment isn’t that much more than what a big bus system would cost, he added.

Estimates for the local cost of a beefed-up bus system total about $36 million, roughly the same amount of money missing from the complex rail-funding formula, which includes state and federal grants and matching funds to build the bulk of the line.

“The differences aren’t that different” when comparing costs of bus vs. rail, Smith said. “We should pick what is best and then go get it.”

The valley’s other citizens task forces will meet in the next week to make their recommendations, then the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority Policy Committee will make a final determination on the bus vs. rail question at its meeting on Oct. 8.

That decision must be unanimously approved by the eight local governments that own the corridor before the RFRHA board puts its official stamp of approval on the choice – a move that could come as soon as Oct. 22.

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