RTA continues uncertainty over railroad right of way | AspenTimes.com

RTA continues uncertainty over railroad right of way

Allyn Harvey

Once touted as the way to solve the valley’s transportation woes, the corridor investment study of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right of way now seems stuck in a bureaucratic Never-Never Land.The study has been hurried, delayed, trumpeted and politically abandoned in its two-and-a-half year history.Yesterday, the board of directors at the Rural Transportation Authority, the new masters of the right of way, put off their decision about what to do with the study until sometime next year. When exactly they’ll make that decision wasn’t clear, however.”We should require staff to do an independent analysis about what means what,” said RTA board chairman T. Michael Manchester. “Let’s keep moving forward to determine what the CIS is at this point.”The RTA’s difficulty in deciding what to do reflects the ambivalence that seems to have settled in about the right of way and the proposal to use it to build a commuter rail line between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. Two of the six board members present yesterday remained silent throughout the debate, while three said they thought the study should be completed as soon as possible.”Without the CIS, we won’t be able to get significant federal matches for the money we spend on capital projects, like park and rides,” said Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards. She said she would like to see the study completed, but added, “We may have to slow down in order to speed things up.”Even Tony Hershey, the Aspen City Councilman who has been calling out for an end to the CIS, was bit by the ambivalence bug at Thursday’s RTA meeting.”I will support the CIS if it has a clear and useful purpose related to rail,” he said. But with his next breath he threatened to meet with elected officials from all seven RTA member governments and lobby for an end to the study.A corridor investment study, often referred to as a CIS, is a four-step process necessary to secure funding for public transportation from the Federal Transit Administration, according to Tom Newland, executive director of the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority.The holding authority is the multi-jurisdictional agency formed in the mid-1990s to manage the right of way, which several local governments had purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad. When voters approved formation of the RTA last month, they transferred responsibility for the right of way from the holding authority to the new agency.The study began locally in 1998, when committees of citizens and elected officials from various communities convened to consider dozens of transportation alternatives. They eventually culled the list from about 65 to four.The finalists – making no changes, commuter rail, expanded bus service on Highway 82, and a special bus-only lane paved up the right of way – then were run through a computer modeling program that predicted how each will affect the valley’s overall transportation picture.The citizen groups, meanwhile, considered the four proposals as they worked toward a recommendation for a “locally preferred alternative.” Rail won reluctant approval from the committees.By the summer of 1999, the holding authority’s board members, many of the same elected officials now sitting on the RTA board, were scrambling to come up with a referendum on rail for the election that fall. But flaws in the computer modeling program delayed the process long into that summer, forcing the board to abandon its election plans.Since then, little has been said about the corridor investment study. But Newland said it has been proceeding, albeit slowly.The computer modeling errors were fixed in the fall of 1999, and last spring the holding authority was able to submit its work to the feds. Work on a draft environmental impact study has been under way since then, although Newland said federal transit officials were reluctant to allow the process to continue until they knew the outcome of the RTA election.Now that voters have approved the RTA, a valleywide entity charged with funding and operating public transportation from Rifle to Aspen, Newland believes the process will pick up steam again – if the RTA board allows it to.The next step is to release the draft environmental impact statement and begin accepting public comment. After the public comment period ends, sometime this spring, the staff members in charge of the corridor investment study will need to write responses to each and every comment. Eventually, the valley’s decision makers will settle on a “locally preferred alternative.”At the same time, Newland said, they will need to apply for funding for preliminary engineering. That money allows the proposal to be outlined in detail. As a result of the choice made in 1999 by those citizen committees, and the community’s overwhelming support for expanded bus service that was reflected in this fall’s RTA election, the preliminary engineering money is likely to be spent on a phased plan from buses to rail, he explained.If everything goes well, Newland said a final environmental impact statement could be done by June 1. Once that’s finished, the Federal Transit Administration can issue a “record of decision.” With a record of decision in place, the valley will qualify for large amounts of federal transit dollars, although the money would need to be appropriated by Congress.Newland thinks the naysayers on rail, like Hershey, can be quieted if the record of decision includes a requirement for an election on rail before any action is taken.”The feds aren’t going to put any money in the pot until they’re darn sure rail is what the public wants,” Newland said.Newland also says a phased plan that goes from bus to rail gets around the “shelf-life” problem raised by rail opponents.Hershey has been particularly vocal with his concerns that a few million dollars will be spent completing a study that will become obsolete in six or eight or 10 years.”I don’t want to chase bad money with good,” he said. “I don’t believe rail is a viable alternative for the next 25 or 30 years, much less 10.”If the record of decision has a first phase, buses, and a second phase, rail, and we start working on the first phase right away, then we’re there, we’re doing it,” Hershey said.

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