Dale Will: Supporters of rail should not become trail spoilers
There has been much written in the last few months about a perceived conflict between rail and trail use of the Rio Grande right of way. I am writing in an attempt to shed light on this topic. I believe there is no conflict. I consider myself to be both a rail and trail supporter. As a Carbondale resident working in Aspen, there is no one who would benefit more from a good light rail system than I. I also am director of the Pitkin County trails program which recently completed the Rio Grande Trail from Aspen to Emma. The immediate public values of opening the valleywide trail as soon as possible are immense. We are getting an average of 330 people per day enjoying the Aspen-Woody Creek portion of the trail. These people are getting a safe and healthy break every day. No one knows how many injuries have been avoided by giving pedestrians and cyclists an alternative to our increasingly crowded road system. Also, studies show that the financial boost to the local economy averages $10 per day for every person on such trails; we’re getting a $3,300-per-day boost in Aspen and Woody Creek from the existing trail. The cost of constructing the remainder of the trail from Emma to Glenwood will be greatly increased if the rail bed is made unavailable by RFTA at pinch points and wetlands. Estimated cost to complete the remaining 19 miles of trail are in the $5 million to $7 million range, if the rail bed is used to bypass wetlands and pinch points. If the rail bed cannot be used in these situations, estimated trail costs are $11 million to $13 million. Given annual funding constraints, staying off the remainder of the rail bed will perhaps double the amount of time it will take to connect Carbondale and Glenwood to the valleywide trail. Some rail proponents argue that putting more trail on the rail bed will be an impediment to later rail-transit uses. This fear is unfounded.Regardless of where the trail is built, if and when the hundreds of millions of dollars for a legitimate rail use becomes available, the trail must be moved accordingly. Informed observers believe this is at least 20 to 30 years away. The life of a paved trail is approximately 10 years. Let’s enjoy the trail now, while we are working on the long vision that a light rail system will require! The documents that created RFTA and allowed for the purchase and rail banking of the rail line all clearly state that any future passenger rail service would not be hindered by the use of the rail corridor or rail bed for the trail. Here are some selected quotes from the formation documents. From the Surface Transportation Board decision and notice of interim trail use: “… RFRHA seeks to rail bank the line in its own name and has submitted a statement of willingness to assume financial responsibility for the right of way, acknowledging that the use of the right of way is subject to possible future reconstruction and reactivation for rail service as required under the National Trail System act.” From the ruling: “Interim trail use/rail banking is subject to the future restoration of rail service and to users continuing to meet the financial obligations of the right of way.” This is a legal document and is binding on the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. The RFTA formation IGA states on page one, “The primary use of the property under this future plan shall be as a public transportation corridor. Secondary uses can include recreational opportunities and access to adjacent public lands, provided that the secondary uses do not preclude the primary use as a public transportation corridor.” The agreement with Great Outdoors Colorado further states in section 2.2: “The parties acknowledge and agree that the corridor was originally purchased and is held by RFRHA [RFTA has assumed all of RFRHA’s responsibilities] in perpetuity not only for its conservation values and the construction on and maintenance of a trail but for the reestablishment of mass transit system in the future. … It is not the intent of the parties to interfere with the legal rights and obligations of RFTA attendant to the operation of a mass transit court or the legal rights and obligations …” It has been estimated that the cost to remove any trail constructed on the rail bed to its ultimate alignment within the corridor would be less than 1 percent of the total cost of any new passenger rail project.I would suggest that those wishing to promote rail should focus on finding the hundreds of millions of dollars such a system will take, rather than causing needless delays to a valleywide trail that is feasible today. Would-be rail supporters would do well not to become trail spoilers; such will set back the cause of both. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” – Aldo Leopold[Dale Will is Pitkin County Open Space & Trails director]
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