Coming soon to a valley near you: a rail-trail

Article by Ed Quillen

Railroad abandonment – February 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Granted, trains might still be running between Cañon City and Dotsero this time next year.

The federal government could refuse to allow the Southern Pacific, which owns those 170 miles of one-time Denver & Rio Grande Western track, to merge with the Union Pacific. If there’s no merger, then the SP needs this line through the mountains. With a merger, then traffic that now goes over Tennessee Pass and through the Royal Gorge could go through Wyoming or New Mexico.

One opponent of the merger, the president of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, says there’s a 30% chance that the merger will not be approved.

Another possibility is that the merger will be approved, but not the abandonment. Loss of rail service could well mean the end of operations at the ASARCO Black Cloud Mine east of Leadville, and ASARCO is a big enough company — especially if it is joined by other opponents of abandonment — to put up a good fight.

But then again, when a railroad decides to abandon a line, it generally succeeds. And the party that should be the major player in fighting this abandonment, the state government, probably won’t fight it.

Rumor has it that Gov. Roy Romer has talked to the UP, with the understanding that if the UP will move its headquarters and associated jobs to Denver, then the state won’t contest the merger and consequent abandonment.

This, even though Romer should have a clear duty to fight the abandonment. He swore an oath, after all, to enforce the constitution of the state of Colorado, and if you read Article XV, Section 5, you’ll see that “No railroad corporation, or the lessees or managers thereof, shall consolidate its stock, property or franchises with any other railroad corporation owning or having under its control a parallel or competing line.”

Of course, a UP attorney says that minor things like state constitutions don’t apply to big corporations. Our state government doesn’t mind seizing your house and your children if you grow the wrong plants in your garden, but if you’re incorporated in Delaware and you do $5.2 billion a year in business, you, too, can ignore inconvenient provisions in the supreme law of our state.

Even so, it is kind of refreshing to realize that the 39 men who organized this state’s government in 1876 foresaw that railroads might consolidate to the detriment of the people of Colorado, and these founding fathers did everything in their power to prevent that from happening.

Another possibility is that a short-line operator will take over the tracks, and we’ll have tourist excursions, passenger service, commuter trains, and aggressive local freight service. But economics weigh heavily against this, unless the short-line operator can get some guarantee of bridge traffic from the UP — and the UP hasn’t offered.

And so, if you want to bet, bet on this: That the merger and abandonment will be approved next August by the federal government, and that shortly thereafter, the salvage crews will go to work removing the rail and ties.

What happens next?

The UP announced that it wants to “rail-bank” the corridor. In essence, rail-banking means that the corridor is preserved as a unit. The railroad sells the right-of-way to another entity — a governmental agency or a non-profit corporation — which in turn manages the corridor, generally as a trail for non-motorized recreation.

The easiest way to describe rail-banking is to describe its opposite — what has generally happened before when a rail line is abandoned. The most recent abandonment hereabouts was the 20-mile line from Salida to the Monarch Quarry, which shed its iron in 1984.

From downtown Salida to Holman Avenue, it’s a paved path because the city bought that chunk and then improved it. Proceed toward Poncha Springs, and you’ll see some parts that have been obliterated because the adjacent property owner bought the old right-of-way and converted it back into pasture. Other parts still look like railroad grade, but are blocked off because they’re private property. West of Maysville, parts of it are public thoroughfare because they’re on Forest Service land open to all of us.

Turn south, and in the summer you can drive across Marshall Pass — an old railroad grade converted into a public road after abandonment in 1955. But if you keep going south, you’ll see pieces of the old line over Poncha Pass — some fenced and private, some open to the public.

How did all this happen?

When the railroad came through in 1880 and following years, it didn’t follow any consistent method in acquiring its right-of-way.

Where the D&RG crossed public land, it generally received a 200-foot-wide right-of-way from the U.S. General Land Office (the ancestor of today’s BLM). This land might be owned outright by the railroad, or the title could provide that, if the railroad no longer needed it, the land would revert to the federal government.

Arrangements got even more diverse when the railroad dealt with private landowners. The railroad might have bought the land outright. Or it might have purchased an easement with the condition that the property owner would get the use of the land back if the rails came up. It might have bought the land, but the original owner would have first right to buy it back if the trains stopped running. And there are many other variations which can keep lawyers quite gainfully employed whenever a rail line is abandoned.

But from these possibilities, you can see that a railroad corridor is not a strip of land owned outright by a railroad. The corridor is instead a strip of land that can be used by a railroad, and when it’s no longer used by a railroad, all sorts of people may have claims on parts of the land.

The idea behind “rail-banking” is to preserve the corridor, even if it doesn’t have rails, and even if landowners along the way have claims to the corridor if there are no rails on it.

Rail-banking, in essence, is a legal fiction which says “for the purposes of property claims, we’ll pretend that there are rails on this strip of land, even if there aren’t.” The corridor is then administered by either a public agency or a non-profit corporation.

That way, the corridor is preserved, and if someday there’s a need to lay new rails, the terrain is ready. Meanwhile, the corridor could be put to other uses — a public road, perhaps, or a trail, or a route for fiber-optic cables and other utility lines.

As you might have guessed, this isn’t always popular, especially among landowners with legal claims to the right-of-way once the rails come up.

At hearings in Salida concerning railroad abandonment, Jeanne Foster, who sells real estate, said she was concerned that adjacent property-owners hadn’t been heard from.

One of them was heard from: rancher Denzel Goodwin, who feared that a trail might simplify matters for trespassers. A Granite man showed me his deed — which clearly states that the D&RG and its successors are entitled to run trains across his land, as long as they need to. I’m no lawyer, but to me it seemed pretty clear that if the railroad no longer needed to run trains across that parcel, then it goes back to him to do with as he will.

In other parts of the country, property owners along abandonments have fought against trails on the railroad beds. Part of the motivation is property rights, and part of it is loss of privacy and fear that the trails will bring vandalism and other crime.

According to the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 16, 1995), one Carl Jones of Winfield, Pa., got so upset at cyclists on an abandoned rail line through his farm that he stacked hay across the corridor, and then strung an electric fence. One of his neighbors stacked manure.

USA Today (Nov. 29, 1995) told of Jerry and Linda Howard, who live outside Crawfordsville, Ind., and got more than upset when they found cyclists at the edge of their yard on an abandoned railroad grade. The cyclists thought it was a public trail; the Howards thought it was their land, and took the case to court. Meanwhile they and their like-minded neighbors “put up gates, strung cable, wooden fences, piled hay bales or parked junk cars across the abandoned line to discourage use.”

So far, though, the property owners haven’t done well in court. A Vermont couple fought rail-banking and a trail all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 — and lost.

Rail-trails don’t only get their right-of-way from governmental action. They can also get money, which goes to planking bridges, installing privies, pavement, and similar modifications.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 sets aside some federal gasoline-tax money to finance trails, and about $220 million has to date gone toward some of the 7,000 miles of rail-trails in the United States.

Given that there’s a property-rights minded Republican majority in the U.S. Congress, the rail-banking law could change. Some Republicans have made such campaign promises — but they’ve also got their hands full trying to pass a budget that was supposed to have passed before Oct. 1, and so gutting the rail-banking law probably isn’t a high priority.

Also, the highway lobby might persuade Congress to put that trail money into more stuff for cars and trucks, rather than mere people. Again, that can’t be much of a priority at the moment, and further, it strikes me that everybody, including motorists, is better off when the bikes aren’t on the highway. I certainly don’t mind paying a little more at the gas pump if it reduces my worries about cyclists, equestrians, and pedestrians on the shoulder and maybe the road.

So at the moment, the odds are good that:

1. UP and SP will merge in August.

2. The Tennessee Pass-Royal Gorge line will be abandoned shortly thereafter.

3. The corridor will then be “rail-banked,” and become a trail for foot, bicycle, and horse traffic after it is sold to a public agency.

4. There will be opposition, but even if it results in some minor route adjustment, it won’t succeed in preventing the 170-mile trail from becoming a reality.

Who would administer the resulting trail?

The logical contender is the Arkansas Headwaters State Park, which already extends along about 120 miles of the 170-mile railroad corridor.

The state Parks Department has applied for a $50,000 GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado money from the state lottery) planning grant, which will probably be awarded in February.

Parks is the lead agency — other parties include the BLM and Forest Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Upper Arkansas and Northwest COGs, the counties along the line, and various recreation user groups and economic development agencies.

“I want to make it clear,” said Steve Reese, Headwaters Park manager, “that we want the rails to stay there. But if they come out, we want to have a plan in place. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll be in charge of the corridor. The counties along the way might want to do it themselves, or establish something new. But at the moment, we’re taking the lead.”

Reese doesn’t mind getting some advice — in fact, he’s soliciting it. “We need to set up some advisory groups of everyone who wants to be involved — recreation users, city and county governments, adjacent property owners.

“We’ve also got to set up a way to meet — everybody in one place, or separate groups in each county, or some other arrangement.”

Reese said that anybody who’s interested in the future of the corridor should call him (719-539-7289).

I got the idea that he’d like to have adjacent property owners on board, so that maybe they can work things out without enriching attorneys as things progress.

According to the Parks grant proposal for the Heart of the Rockies Historic Corridor, it would cost $6 to $7 million to acquire the corridor and convert it into a trail. Of that, $2 million would come from local sources — city and county governments, outdoor groups, etc. — and the rest, $4-5 million — from GOCO, which seems to have plenty. When GOCO was formed, they expected to get $25 to $40 million from 1993 to 1998; already it has received $45 million and has dispensed 27.7 million.

As for operating the trail, Parks (in conjunction with the BLM) would handle the bulk of the Historic Corridor that adjoins the Headwaters Park. Reese said that some form of user fee, such as a Parks pass, would likely be required in the stretch his agency might manage.

Inside incorporated towns and cities, the municipal governments would be in charge. Lake County Parks would handle the segment from Granite to the Forest Service boundary. The Forest Service would be in charge across (or under — there are two parallel tunnels, although only one is currently in use) Tennessee Pass, and Eagle County would maintain the trail outside town limits.

The grant application cited a host of potential benefits from the Historic Corridor Trail. Among them:

* Close-to-home recreation for local residents.

* Improved river access for fishing, rafting, gold-panning and similar recreation.

* Good access for the handicapped, since the trail has a maximum grade of 3% (that is, it rises or falls only 3 feet for every 100 linear route), thus making it available to wheelchairs, strollers, etc.

* Enhanced wildlife migration corridor.

* Better access to public lands.

* Dispersing recreation all along the corridor, thus reducing congestion.

* Getting bicycles off the interstate in Eagle County.

But those possible benefits may not mean much to the rancher worried about “hippies with their dogs that will get loose and chase my cattle,” or the landowner worried about vandalism, increased trespass, and the like.

When I looked around for information, one way or the other, I couldn’t find any place where a rail-trail had actually caused such problems.

In some places, they have increased real-estate values, and homeowners want to be near the trail. One example is one of the busiest rail-trails, the Washington & Old Dominion in northern Virginia. “We are constantly getting calls from developers who want to tie into the trail,” said Jules Kitzeroa of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

On the Internet, I found a message from one Ken Brown in Canada, who had heard that “landowners adjacent to a rail line do have just cause to fear a trail, since hikers do bring noise and litter and nuisances,” but “experience here in Ontario suggests the opposite. Abandoned rail lines attract ATVs, 4x4s, and teens looking for a secluded spot to drink. This was a problem to adjacent landowners at an abandoned rail line near the City of Orilla, but the problem disappeared when a recreation trail was opened. The hikers and cyclists do not bother the landowners and the rowdies are deterred as use increases by the responsible public.”

An added comment came from Tom Merriman in Pennsylvania, who wrote that he lives near a rail trail between McKeesport and Connelsville which he uses regularly for hiking and biking. “Most of the users of the trail are from the local community and I have never encountered any abusive behavior. People seem to be more friendly when they are on the trail (strangers actually say hello to each other); it seems to foster a sense of community.”

Closer to home, I asked Nancy Sanger, Salida mayor, if there had been any complaints about Salida’s short rail-trail, which extends for about a mile from the river to Holman Avenue. “Surprisingly, none,” she said.

Patsy Brooks, Salida city administrator, said that the only problem she’s heard about is that some people let their dogs defecate on the paved surface.

“I haven’t heard of any vandalism on adjacent property,” she said, “and our police don’t patrol the trail at all — though we might get them to check it once in a while next summer. Litter hasn’t been a problem; some blows in, but I know that Ray James and Marmie Witty walk the trail every day and pick up trash.”

Based on what I could find, most adjacent landowners’ fears won’t come to pass. Trail users just want to walk or peddle or ride their horses, and enjoy some scenery along the way; they’re not vandals or voyeurs.

Now it’s time to look at the bigger picture. Assuming there is a 170-mile trail in place, what would it mean economically and socially and culturally?

Well, I think it would be a gold mine, although I don’t know that I would like all the changes it would bring about.

The only solid trail financial data I could find comes from Summit County, which employs a county statistician, Jeri Vest. She conducted a census of trail users in 1991, and discovered that, on average, those from out of town spent $51 a day in the county.

Adjust that for some inflation to, say, $60 a day. How many would come? Headwaters State Park attracts about 600,000 people a year now; the trail could certainly draw a at least a quarter of that, for 150,000. (Summit County’s trails attracted 212,000 user-days in ’91, and Historic Corridor Trail will be bigger and better than that system.)

So that’s $9 million a year that would be spent hereabouts that isn’t being spent now. Local governments will grab about 4% of that right off the top in sales taxes, for $360,000 a year — more than replacing the approximately $200,000 a year that the railroad now pays in property taxes.

Then there’s the multiplier effect — as those new dollars work their way through the communities, that $9 million will turn into $18 or $20 million.

Direct trail possibilities seem endless. Mountain-biking is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, and where else on earth is there a 170-mile route along what the railroad once billed as “the scenic line of the world”?

It’s got the dark and deep Eagle River gorge, Tennessee Pass with a choice of tunnels or the old narrow-gauge route over the top, Brown’s Canyon, and the Royal Gorge. It has connections to other trail systems — Vail Pass, Summit County, Leadville Mineral Belt, Cañon City Riverwalk.

Some entrepreneur will arrange a shuttle so that you can get on a bicycle in Leadville and coast to Cañon City, with maybe an overnighter in Salida.

Along the route will be campgrounds, bike repair and rental shops, horseback rides, sandwich shops, lemonade stands, cross-country ski rentals, bait and tackle shops, in-line skate and skateboard rentals, bed-and-breakfast inns in places like Howard and Granite — a full panoply of ways to separate trail users from their money, and scores of ways for adjacent property owners to turn the trail from annoyance or nuisance into profit.

A trail should elevate real-estate values, too, because it’s worked that way elsewhere. Many people move here to take advantage of recreational opportunities, and property that has convenient access to 170 miles of recreational opportunity should fetch a premium.

I’ve even thought of taking a week or two to walk and photograph the full route so that I can write and publish the first “official” guidebook to the Historic Corridor, full of railroad lore, local history, geography, and geology. Should sell at least 5,000 copies a year at $9.95 a pop, and then maybe I could retire from this magazine work.

Doubtless someone will beat me to that one, but that’s not the only reason I’m less than thrilled by a rail-trail. I’d rather have the rails, especially in the hands of a short-line operator who aggressively pursues local traffic.

That would mean more industrial development, especially mines and quarries. Those bring problems, but they also pay decent wages — something you can’t say for the tourist industry. And decent wages mean that regular people can afford to buy houses and be part of the community; it isn’t healthy to have people living six-to-a-trailer and commuting 100 miles a day to work.

But America hardly ever runs the way I think it should (for which we should be grateful — I’m often very wrong), and so, with the trail, we will become even more dependent on tourism, and our mountains are full of one-industry settlements — they’re called “ghost towns.”