Blankenship: Understanding the Rio Grande Access Plan | AspenTimes.com
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Blankenship: Understanding the Rio Grande Access Plan

Dan Blankenship
Guest Column

Recently it has been reported that the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is updating the Rio Grande Corridor Access Control Plan. The initial plan was developed by the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority in 2000 and was updated by RFTA in 2005.

Some have expressed opinions that the proposed update of the plan is overreaching and that it represents an effort on the part of RFTA to grab people’s land, to foreclose access to adjacent property owners, to stymie public crossings and to thwart private development. These opinions reflect a misunderstanding of the history of the corridor, the laws governing rail banking and the responsibilities that have been delegated to RFTA as the successor of the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority.

While the current proposed update of the plan emphasizes the rail-banked status of the corridor, which requires the corridor to be preserved for future freight-rail reactivation, it embodies most of the provisions of the previous plans. In other words, the plan is not new, and RFTA has been guided by it for 14 years. During that time frame, RFTA has worked cooperatively with local governments; private entities and individuals that have proposed new public crossings; and private individuals who own property adjacent to the corridor.

As background, RFTA owns 33.4 miles of the historic Aspen branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad corridor. A recreational trail has been constructed in the corridor, and each year many thousands of residents and visitors enjoy hiking and biking on it. In the future, the corridor may also be needed for public-transportation purposes. To keep the corridor intact for public uses, the Surface Transportation Board requires RFTA to manage it as though it were an active freight railroad and avoid actions that might preclude the reactivation of freight-rail service.

In 1997, the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, a public entity, purchased the Denver and Rio Grande corridor from the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. for $8.5 million. The purchase was prompted by the impending merger of Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad. With the dissolution of Southern Pacific, Union Pacific could have abandoned the corridor, causing the land to revert to residential and commercial development. If not for the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority’s purchase of the corridor, the opportunity to preserve it for public uses might have been lost. As part of the intergovernmental agreement that authorized the purchase, the holding authority’s constituent governments agreed to preserve the corridor for its intended transportation and trail uses and delegated the responsibility for the corridor’s stewardship to the holding authority.

In 1998, the Surface Transportation Board issued the holding authority a notice of interim trail use for the Denver and Rio Grande corridor. The notice conferred upon the holding authority all of the rights and responsibilities of an active freight railroad without the obligation of providing freight rail service. The notice, known as “rail banking,” made the corridor available for public uses, including the creation of a hiking and biking trail.

In 2000, the holding authority adopted a corridor comprehensive plan, which included an access control plan that established policies for managing existing public and private crossings and for approving new public and private crossings of the corridor.

In 2001, RFTA assumed ownership of the corridor from the holding authority, which was then dissolved. As RFTA learned, in order to preserve the corridor’s rail-banked status, the potential for freight-rail reactivation must always be maintained. That means that RFTA must avoid creating insurmountable physical and/or financial barriers to the reactivation of freight-rail service. Otherwise, the Surface Transportation Board could rule that the corridor has been abandoned, resulting in the extinguishment of federal land grants that keep approximately 20 percent of the contiguous corridor intact.

Approximately $30 million of public funding has been invested to purchase and survey the corridor, to construct the Rio Grande Trail and for ongoing management and maintenance. The true value of this contiguous corridor, however, for recreational and future transportation uses is inestimable. RFTA, as a regional entity and successor to the holding authority, has been delegated with the responsibility for preserving this very valuable regional asset.

Nothing in the proposed update of the Access Control Plan is a significant departure from the previous versions of the plan. However, when local governments or private developers seek RFTA approval of their proposed crossings of the corridor, their projects could be more costly if the plan’s polices are applied. The fundamental question is whether local governments and private developers should be allowed to construct corridor crossings that could be detrimental to the reactivation of freight-rail service and, by extension, place the preservation of the contiguous corridor at risk in order to reduce their costs of construction. Regrettably, there are no easy answers to this question.

To be clear, RFTA’s mission is to protect this public asset that is enjoyed by thousands of residents and visitors each year. The holding authority at the outset and now RFTA have been advised that adherence to rail-banking requirements is required to keep the corridor intact. While this might mean that RFTA is hamstrung from supporting all public and private crossing projects as proposed, RFTA is prepared to work cooperatively with the project sponsors to explore workable solutions.

Unfortunately, there is no bright line. If, as a result of public and private crossings RFTA approves, the cumulative cost of restoring the corridor to proper working order would make the reactivation of freight-rail service financially infeasible, arguments might arise from those with private interests that the corridor has been abandoned.

RFTA is extending its public-comment period on the Access Control Plan by another 60 days so that all viewpoints can be fully evaluated. RFTA invites and values everyone’s input so that it can develop the best policies it can for the management and preservation of the corridor.

The “proposed” update of the Access Control Plan can be viewed at http://www.rfta.com/traildocs.html.

Dan Blankenship is CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.


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