RFTA puts rail debate to rest | AspenTimes.com

RFTA puts rail debate to rest

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has finally heard enough about rails.The RFTA board of directors upheld decisions yesterday to tear up and salvage the railroad tracks running down the spine of the valley and to end negotiations with a company that wants to run a dinner train between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. The board rejected appeals by rail supporters to overturn those decisions. RFTA board members said the dinner train proposal is too sketchy and requires too much risk for the agency. The proposal by a company called Iowa Pacific Holdings would require RFTA to put up property as collateral on a loan to get a dinner train rolling, according to RFTA board Chairman Dan Richardson.Richardson also disclosed that Iowa Pacific Holdings has operated only one excursion train, which no longer operates, and that its passenger projections were general guesses rather than data from a study of the Roaring Fork Valley.”I am personally ready to close the door,” Richardson said.”We’re not going to solicit any more [information],” agreed RFTA board member Arnie Mordkin. “It’s over.”The RFTA board upheld its earlier decisions after a three-hour debate that many observers found painfully dysfunctional. Train proponents were often told they couldn’t speak until specific topics came up in the agenda, but it was never clear when the time was appropriate.Rail proponents finally stomped out of the meeting claiming they weren’t given a fair chance to be heard after Richardson stopped accepting public comment.Rail supporter Jon Busch said RFTA’s discussions over the last several months seemed slanted against preserving rail and in favor of a building a pedestrian trail.He said the board should have been more willing to listen to public comments because the issue is “such a momentous occasion.””We feel they haven’t listened,” Busch said.Another audience member felt RFTA has listened too much. Former RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt scolded the board for allowing residents to force it to revisit and rehash the same old issues all the time. It’s preventing the board from moving on to long-term transportation planning and financing, she said.”Finalize it, move on and don’t keep revisiting decisions,” Whitsitt said of the train-trail issue.But revisit they did. Jim Wright, a resident of Glenwood Springs, accused RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship of having a bias and influencing the agency’s direction against preserving.”The nonsense ought to stop” by letting Iowa Pacific Holdings speak directly to the RFTA board rather than let its proposal get filtered by Blankenship, Wright said. He suggested the elected officials on the RFTA board were failing their fiduciary duty by not allowing the tracks to be used by a dinner train that could produce revenue.Wright also criticized the agency for plans to spend close to $7.4 million to complete a trail from the Hooks area near El Jebel to Glenwood Springs by 2010.”The bike trail is just another money-losing public works project,” he said. Trail supporter Bernie Grauer, a Basalt resident, said Wright didn’t have his facts straight. He noted that RFTA has a commitment to fund the trail by 2010 due to campaign promises it made in two elections on tax increases and as part of its mission when it was created. Building the trail isn’t optional.”I believe in truth in taxation,” he said.Grauer said RFTA gave train supporters a fair chance to come up with a legitimate proposal for service. No one produced one, not even the company that proposed the dinner train.”It’s very debatable whether this 15-mile-per-hour amusement would generate revenues,” Grauer said.When the dust from the debate cleared, RFTA board members voted unanimously to end negotiations on the dinner train, although they said any company that thinks it has a legitimate idea can present it to the entire board.The board also voted 6-1 to uphold its earlier decision to tear up and sell the rails. Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud cast the dissenting vote.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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