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Darkness on the Royal Gorge Route

Article by Allen Best

Transportation – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Standing on the Southern Pacific tracks at the entrance to the 2,000-foot Tennessee Pass tunnel, the highest point of main-line rail in the country, you can see a small but distinct light at the far end.

But no such light yet exists for the communities between Caon City and Dotsero, the 173-mile segment planned for abandonment if and when Union Pacific gets permission from the federal government to buy Southern Pacific. Nearly three months after the railroads announced abandonment plans, the only real consensus among the communities seems to be that the corridor itself, if not necessarily the rail, must be preserved.

In early November, Southern Pacific reported a similar goal, although cautioning that the shots will be called by Union Pacific. Dave Steel, president of Southern Pacific Real Estate Enterprises, said rail officials want to use the federal government’s rail banking legislation, often called “rails to trails.”

That law by no means ensures a bike or pedestrian trail, although after the track and ties are gone it would be easy to create biking-hiking trails; what it does ensure is that a minimal right-of-way will be maintained so that someday the railroad could come back in and lay new rails. In doing so, it prevents adjoining landowners from claiming the railroad corridor as their own, which it appears many could otherwise do.

In other words, the railroad and towns want to prevent what happened between Carbondale and Aspen many years ago, when the Rio Grande (since swallowed up by Southern Pacific) abandoned tracks. Land, in many cases, reverted to adjacent landowners. With the goal of creating commuter rail, a consortium of governments in the last few years has tried to secure ownership. It’s been a bit like herding cats.

Steel also indicated a belief that nobody would be able to buy the rail, ties, and ballast. The value of that rail had speculatively been placed at anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 per mile. Instead, the railroads plan to move it to the Sunset Line, to double-track across New Mexico and Arizona. It would be cheaper to pull out the 132-pound rail (that’s the weight per three-foot length) and later go in and replace it with 90-pound rail, which would be suitable for excursion and commuter trains, but not 110-car coal trains.

However, putting in new rail, ties and ballast is estimated to cost $1 million per mile — a figure that seems to wholly contradict Steel’s statement.

Is the railroad bluffing? Maybe, but some of those cards will be out for public viewing on December 1, when UP and SP apply to the Interstate Commerce Commission simultaneously for permission to merge (technically, UP would acquire SP) and abandon the Royal Gorge Route (known as the Tennessee Pass route to those closer to Vail). Included in the filings will be some hard costs, although Steel has already indicated that the railroads will first want to abandon and then pull up rail on the segment between Dotsero and Malta, just outside of Leadville, later pulling up the rail between Malta and Caon City.

Another pivotal day will be December 2, when representatives from Caon to Gypsum meet with Gov. Roy Romer in Buena Vista to discuss their options. At a meeting October 2, there was general agreement about preserving the corridor. Nobody, however, seems to know what step No. 2 is.

“Everybody wants to do something, but nobody wants to take the lead,” says Stuart Macdonald, state trails coordinator, who has shown as much leadership as anybody.

Here’s the breakdown of local responses:

On the Western Slope, the case has attracted great interest but no particular initiative. Although many people abhor great hopes of commuter rail from Leadville to Glenwood to Aspen, there’s no reason to get worked up about the possibility until sometime next year, when a consultant for the Colorado Department of Transportation finishes a rough-draft feasibility study of 13 rail corridors around the state. However, Eagle County voters last month approved a half-cent sales tax, which is expected to yield $3.2 million a year for mass transit. Ten percent is specifically allotted to bike paths, with the balance expected to go toward an aging bus fleet that ranges from Vail to Leadville to Gypsum.

Eagle County has made no decision whether it will protest abandonment. The Town of Vail has indicated it will help pay for a lawyer to represent Eagle County or associated counties. One county commissioner indicated a subcommittee of the new county Transportation Authority would be formed to handle the matter.

Some people very much want commuter rail, a few want tracks intact for future freight, and a lot of people want a bicycle path. A few landowners are eagerly hoping to buy the right-of-way for golf courses or whatever. Eagle County plans to focus its efforts on the Dotsero-Malta segment.

Lake County seems to have a mixture of wishes. Many people still await discovery of the next big ore body, and therefore insist the rails should be left. Others support commuter rail to Eagle County; while others seem to see potential in excursion trains. (For observations from the Leadville, Colorado & Southern, see following story).

Chaffee and Frmont counties, along with some surprising interest out of Pueblo County, seem most firmly headed in the direction of excursion trains. At the initiative of Anita Northwood, executive director of Heart of the Rockies Chamber of Commerce, interest in operating a train was solicited from existing excursion train operators, and she reported several firm bites.

AS FOR STATE GOVERNMENT, the reaction seems best described so far by that of a lobster in a strong current. There are tentacles everywhere, but little sense of articulated and cohesive action. First the tentacles:

Colorado Department of Transportation. Despite its new name, almost everyone — even most within the agency — will agree that for all practical purposes, it might as well have its old name of Highway Department. Most of its money, whether federal or state, is earmarked for highways, and department officials concede that transportation for most of the bureaucracy means highways and rubber tires. “You can’t expect a bureaucracy to turn on a dime,” says one of the bureaucrats.

Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Macdonald, as state trails coordinator, is within this agency, and he seems to have carte blanche to help initiate state involvement in conjunction with local governments.

State Legislature. State Rep. Jack Taylor, a Republican from Steamboat Springs whose district includes Eagle County, has been very active, and has been floating the idea of tax incentives for short-haul operators. Coming hard on the heels of an abandonment in North Park, he’s well aware of the state’s failure to respond.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Linda Powers, a Democrat from Crested Butte whose district includes the upper Arkansas, has been working on a revolving loan fund, with the state providing seed money for enterprises such as excursion trains. The Colorado Department of Transportation is now helping her draft such legislation.

At the middle of the octopus is Gov. Roy Romer, who has two staff assistants working on the case, one of whom was scheduled to brief him this past week. He has also discussed creating a task force to evaluate this and other railroad abandonments, and to come up with criteria to assess the value of those lines to the state.

In buying the line, two ideas have been mentioned. First, using a law passed in 1982 that allows multiple counties to band together to pass general revenue bonds. Second, creating an intergovernmental agreement for the Roaring Fork Valley Railroad joined by Pitkin, Eagle, and Garfield counties.

Of some concern to those involved in the case, though, is that the abandonment is being treated as an economic development issue instead of a transportation issue.

As for strategies, the emerging consensus seems to be to oppose the abandonment, if for no other reason than to secure a better position at the bargaining table and also to slow the process while local governments figure out what we want and how we’ll pay for it. At a meeting in Leadville, Jack Baier of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission explained it this way: “The more paper sent to Washington, the more they have to read, and the slower the process.” Baier urged even individual citizens to file protests. He suggested that UP might very well be willing to negotiate a good deal to avoid a prolonged protest.

Of course, this assumes that the railroad actually knows what it’s doing. One speaker who showed up at Eagle County’s public meeting identified himself as a railroad writer who just happened to be staying at nearby Glenwood Springs. He expressed doubts about whether all the freight coming over Tennessee Pass could be shifted to Wyoming and the Sunset Route, and also questioned the wisdom of that situation. With Wyoming three-tracked, it wouldn’t take much for a terrorist to tie up the nation’s freight, he suggested.

Allen Best is managing editor of the Vail Valley Times on the west side of Tennessee Pass.