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Counties should buy the railroad for $1

Letter from Paul Martz

Transportation – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine


After attending the Dec. 6 Railroad Abandonment Regional Meeting at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds, I came away with the feeling that the group was missing the forest for the trees, or should I say, the rails for the bucks.

The first couple of hours seemed to be devoted to numbers, mostly dollars. The figure bandied about most was $20 million, the sale price of the line to a short-line operator who would not compete with the second mega-railroad to be created by The Merger.

Having been disappointed after attending previous planning and financial-aid meetings, I was gratified to see that the earlier abandonment meeting in Buena Vista had produced a consensus that the rails should be preserved.

I was slowly sinking into that pit of intellectual numbness that hits me whenever I sit on a metal folding chair for more than ten minutes, and then it occurred to me that there is a simple solution to the apparent money problem.

The Merger is reported to be a $5.4 billion deal, making the $20 million valuation of the proposed abandonment from Dotsero to the Kansas border a drop in the bucket by comparison. I don’t know what the legal bill for this deal is, but that amount alone would pump up my checkbook for the foreseeable future. Given the realities of corporate thinking, I can see a way to preserve the rails at virtually no cost to anyone, not even the railroad.

I propose the establishment of the Arkansas & Royal Gorge Railway Commission — initially funded by the six affected counties, the governor’s office, and the Colorado Department of Transportation. Each county puts up 10 grand, the governor 20 and CDOT 20. Each gets one seat on the board of directors, and the board hires a non-voting (except to break ties) chairperson, who is allowed one employee. These seed monies won’t break the budget of any of the entities, and will insure adequate operating money for someone to spearhead the proposal.

The A&RGRC goes to the railroad and says: Lease us the line at $1 per year for 99 years, with an option to renew for another 99. Not only will we maintain it, we’ll see that the counties and state government drop their opposition to The Merger. There is an automatic added bonus, in that since the line won’t be abandoned, and the railroad will technically still own it, the abandonment protests will be null and void.

Think the railroad won’t go for this deal? Consider these facts. In-house corporate attorneys aren’t cheap to begin with, and the Beltway Bandits and outside consultants who have been called in to help grease this deal could easily eat up $20 million or a big chunk thereof, just in responding to local merger opposition and abandonment protests. This is particularly true where governments are concerned, because those entities seem to have special influence with Congress and regulatory agencies.

A further plus for the railroad is that if a tunnel caves in, a bridge washes out, or some other disaster occurs on another route, the Arkansas & Royal Gorge will provide an emergency route, with suitable fees to be paid, of course, for the use of its trackage.

The upside to the counties, governor, and CDOT is that local control has been established over what has already been agreed is an important asset. Our counties, by virtue of their six votes to two, won’t be dominated by Denver and the Front Range on the Board of Directors.

It might seem outrageous to just go ask the railroad to give up the line for a dollar a year, but a lot of positive PR, and some specific economic benefits, would accrue to the railroad by doing so. The worst Phil Anschutz’s boys can say is: Hell, no. Asking is a lot cheaper and a lot easier than coming up with $20 million.

From an accounting standpoint, renting the route to a short line, or even a seasonal excursion operator, is going to look better on everyone’s balance sheet than plunking down $20 million up front and then looking for something to roll over it.

Having come up with The Solution, I think I have the right to insist that when this deal works out, that there be a steam engine to pull the excursion trains. Listening to that whistle blowing in the Royal Gorge and echoing off the canyon walls has got to be a gas (pun intended) worth trying for.

Paul Martz

Poncha Springs