Train dream derails latest trail proposal
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s goal of finishing a valley-long trail by 2010 is in jeopardy because of dreams of choo-choo trains.RFTA’s board of directors voted yesterday to continue exploring whether a dinner train or some other rail service can feasibly operate between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale in the near future.The board overruled RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship, who advised giving up on the dinner train concept. He recommended tearing up and selling the train tracks to make the rail bed available for a trail.Blankenship said his recommendation would reduce the cost of the trail by about $2.7 million and raise extra revenues. The project could be ahead of schedule and under budget.RFTA has made a nonbinding promise to complete 20 miles of trail from Hooks Lane, which is near the Basalt Business Center, to Glenwood Springs by 2010. A pedestrian trail already exists on the 20 miles between Hooks Lane and Aspen.Blankenship said the staff’s research indicated it would be difficult to make a dinner train successful. A consultant determined a dinner train operator would have to invest more than $1 million to upgrade tracks to usable shape.In addition, it would be almost impossible for a dinner train operator to make enough profits to pay RFTA enough to offset the added costs of building the trail off the rail bed, Blankenship said.Stay of executionRFTA board member Arnie Mordkin, a Snowmass Village councilman, said he was “dismayed” by the staff recommendation. He said seeking a request for proposals from dinner train operators and assessing them is the only way to end the ongoing debate of whether rail service is feasible.If no legitimate proposal is submitted, RFTA’s direction is clear, Mordkin said. “Then I would say to the rail advocates, ‘It’s over. Please don’t come back,'” Mordkin said.RFTA board members Helen Klanderud, Aspen’s mayor, and Scott Chaplin, a Carbondale councilman, agreed that trail advocates should be given a chance to submit proposals.”I’m almost arguing for a stay of execution for the rail dream,” Chaplin said.Klanderud didn’t stay long enough for the board’s vote, but the decision to request proposals from dinner train operators passed 4-1. New Castle representative Dave Schroeder cast the only dissenting vote.Bruce Christensen, an alternative RFTA board member from Glenwood Springs, also argued in favor of proceeding with the sale of the track and building the trail as quickly as possible. Waiting to see if a formal proposal is submitted is a waste of time, he suggested.”If there was a real customer out there we would have heard from them,” he said.Funding uncertainties Even if a dinner train isn’t feasible, it’s uncertain whether the RFTA board majority would allow the tracks to be torn up and the entire bed used for a trail. RFTA’s current policy is to allow the trail on the rail bed only when wetlands must be avoided elsewhere in the corridor and when required by pinch points in terrain.Klanderud said allowing use of the rail bed the entire way between Hooks Lane and Glenwood Springs would help create an “insurmountable” political hurdle in the future, if passenger rail service was proposed.Blankenship countered that the corridor’s pre-eminent use is legally reserved for rail service.If the board ultimately decides the trail cannot use the rail bed all the time, finding enough funds to complete the trail by 2010 could be a problem for RFTA.Valley voters approved a sales tax increase for RFTA last November, but most of those funds are earmarked for bus service.Under RFTA’s existing policy, it will take $8.5 million to build the trail. The agency has forecast only $5.35 million in revenues if tracks aren’t salvaged.That means RFTA would be short $3.2 million. It would have to come up with $533,000 annually for the next six years to complete the project by 2010.Blankenship told his board he didn’t think it was worth sacrificing the short-term goal of building a trail as quickly as possible for the sake of a long-term vision for passenger rail service that may never happen. Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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