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RFTA prefers rails to trails

Allyn HarveyAspen Times Staff Writer

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has put the brakes on trail development for the sake of preserving rail development.RFTA’s board of directors, made up of council members and county commissioners from seven valley governments, refused yesterday to allow any more of the Rio Grande trail between Emma and Hook Lane to encroach on the existing rail bed.The decision means the 1.1-mile extension of the trail, which is paved from Aspen to Emma, will not occur until next spring at the earliest.Trail enthusiasts and planners had both hoped work would begin later this summer. But that won’t be possible as additional engineering is needed to get through or around some of the geological and man-made obstacles that are proving troublesome for designers.Mike Herms, RFTA’s facilities and property manager, asked the board for permission to build over the existing rail bed and tracks on several portions of the Emma to Hook Lane stretch. He said laying asphalt over the tracks on the rail bed would save money in spots where there are unstable soils, wetlands, gullies, irrigation ditches or other obstructions.Specifically, he wanted the authority to decide on his own when and where it is appropriate to move the trail onto the rail bed, thereby speeding up work on the project.”As we’ve gone along in the design process, we’ve run into some issues we didn’t anticipate,” Herms said.Last month, the RFTA board agreed the trail should briefly encroach onto the rail bed and cover the tracks, after planners said the only other choice was to build through a wetland. The decision was controversial enough to provoke Jim Breasted’s resignation from RFTA’s citizen advisory committee.Breasted is part of a sizable constituency that wants to preserve the rail corridor for a commuter rail line between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, even if it is a long time before the money and political support is in place to build it. Rail supporters are quick to remind decision makers that the old Rio Grande & Denver railroad right of way was purchased in the mid-1990s with both transit and trails in mind.Around half of the $8.5 million it cost valley governments to purchase the rail corridor from then-owner Union Pacific Railroad was donated to Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Department of Transportation.The Great Outdoors Colorado donation was contingent upon both open space preservation and trail development, according to newspaper articles published at the time of purchase. And CDOT’s donation required the corridor be converted to some public transportation use – rail or trail or both – within 20 years, according to RFTA’s Alice Hubbard.But the primary motivation for the purchase, according to news accounts from the time, was to preserve the railroad right of way for public transportation. For several years after the purchase, communities up and down the valley debated the idea of building a commuter rail line from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, but it was shelved a few years ago after Aspen voters said they weren’t willing to pay for their portion.”What the bike trail does is create a constituency that eventually opposes rail,” Breasted, a longtime valley resident, said in an interview earlier this month.Snowmass Village Councilman Arnie Mordkin said yesterday that he supported last month’s decision to divert a short section of trail onto the rail bed, but he is reluctant to allow any more.”We’re talking about it being cheaper. You know, a lot of things are cheaper – and they’re wrong,” he said.Mordkin and all of his fellow RFTA board members agreed that a policy needed to be worked out before they could hand over the kind of decision-making authority that Herms was requesting. They are expected to reconsider the matter at their September hearing, giving trail and rail supporters time to make their respective cases.”Mike asked for the moon,” said one member of the public at yesterday’s meeting. “They didn’t give it to him.”[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]


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