Say good-bye to good jobs if the rails go

Letter from Daniel Jennings

Transportation – March 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Dear Editor:

As a resident of Central Colorado and the town of Fairplay, up here in the South Park where we lost our last railroad about sixty years ago, I read your article about a “rail trail” in the Arkansas Valley and became chilled to the bone.

The article described a tourism-based economy with lots of outdoor recreation activities and high property values as the benefits of tearing up the Cañon City to Dotsero Line and building a rail trial for Yuppies to hike and ride mountain bikes on.

But I live in beautiful Park County, and I see that wonderful economy in action everyday. In South Park, yuppies, rich retirees, and people from Denver come down and build second homes, while average working folk can’t afford a home of any sort. We have the second highest number of fishermen coming to Park County for recreation in the state of Colorado, and we can’t support a bait shop.

For employment, working folk can work at the convenience store for $5 an hour or for the county for $1450 a month, and shell out $850 a month to rent a house or live in a shack in the woods. Even mobile homes in Fairplay rent for $600 a month.

Of course, most working folk up here fled to Aurora long ago. Now, only a few diehards remain scratching out a living as contractors or caretakers for some hobby ranch or a reservoir for some city water department.

That’s the future the Arkansas Valley faces if, and probably when, it looses its railroad. Mining in Leadville, and gypsum and cement plants in Salida, and the good-paying jobs that go with them, will be history along with quarrying and, of course, railroad jobs. The rail trail will put about as much into the regional economy as a couple of river-rafting companies, and Chaffee, Lake, and much of Frémont County will be forced to rely upon that last resort of desperate local economies — the tourism industry.

While many manufacturing firms are looking at Salida, many more will beat a hasty retreat the minute they see there’s no railroad to provide cheap surface transportation. Tourism, with fishing in Park County as a perfect example, never puts the kind of money into the economy that manufacturing does.

The Union Pacific will not care; they’ll eliminate a potential competitor for their Sunset and Wyoming lines and be able to build more fast freight lines to haul freight from coast to coast so it can be trans-shipped to Europe from Asia or vise-versa. Businesses dependent upon rail will simply relocate to a new location close to the tracks and take their jobs with them. It’s doubtful that a shortline operator will move in to fill the breach, so there will be a beautiful new rail trail in the Arkansas Valley, and your area will become another South Park.

South Park could interestingly enough have a major industry if it had a railroad. The area around Fairplay has some of the best gravel in the state of Colorado and transport railroads could serve several major gravel pits and perhaps even support asphalt and cement plants that provide good-paying jobs. This gravel could have been used in the building of DIA, but Wyoming could supply that gravel a lot cheaper because their gravel pits are near the railroad. So Wyoming supplied the gravel to make the cement at DIA. Notice that the “Always Buy Colorado” crowd and Governor Romer never mentioned this fact when DIA was being built.

Other than tourism here in Park County, near Bailey we have a bedroom community for Denver where suburbanites who don’t like suburbs that are becoming increasingly urbanized, are moving to build new suburbs. In Lake George and Guffey we have new versions of Bailey developing to serve as suburban extensions of Colorado Springs. Around Fairplay, Hartsel, and Alma we have a new kind of mixed-economy consisting of low-cost housing for commuters who work in Summit County (although it’s not that low cost anymore, and I actually know some guys who find it cheaper to live in Summit and commute to Fairplay, and a recreational economy which includes second houses for easterners and Denverites, retirement homes, and places for internet commuters and work-at-homes.

This isn’t a very viable economy either. The property values are too high for average people, and the primary businesses are real estate offices and bars. Fairplay can’t even support a full-service grocery store.

That’s your future, Arkansas Valley, enjoy it. Yuppies will come in to enjoy your wonderful trail and turn Salida into a retirement community. Leadville will be low cost housing for the ski towns, and the only decent jobs will be as prison guards in Buena Vista.

There is an alternative to the rail trail, however, that I don’t hear anybody talking about. Have the state of Colorado buy the rail line and operate it. This might be expensive, but I bet that one week of decent rail service will pump more into the community than twenty years of the rail trail.

I hear the Republicans out there squalling about government run transportation, but we already have a tax-supported government transportation network in the state of Colorado: the highway system. This highway system is what makes ski resorts possible. Would there be a Crested Butte, an Aspen, a Steamboat Springs, a Breckenridge, a Vail, or a Monarch without state highways to carry skiers to them? No way. Nor would there be towns like Pagosa Springs, Fairplay, Alma, Hartsel, Saguache, Westcliffe, and many others without tax-supported state highways. Yet, I’m willing to bet that if raw economics were used to judge which highways to maintain — towns like Westcliffe, Gardener, and Saguache would quickly find themselves without a highway.

A state-run railroad could carry passengers and provide local freight service. It could be run as a public service to the people and industry rather than to enrich a few corporate fat cats. A state-run railroad could be upgraded to run on electricity and even be turned into a bullet train. Government financed railroads in Japan and France have two-hundred-mile-an-hour passenger trains. We could have them too. Furthermore, such trains could enhance our national security because they run on electricity which we could produce right here in the USA, rather than oil from Saudi Arabia.

A bullet train from Denver to the ski areas using the Moffat Tunnel route could reach Winter Park in about thirty minutes and Glenwood Springs and Vail in about an hour. Of course, a bullet train might not be such a good thing — since it would allow commuters to live in places like Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs, and might eventually result in more Evergreens and Woodlands Parks sprouting deep in the mountains.

The Moffat Tunnel line will probably be the next target of the corporate looters from the Union Pacific and that’s scary. As a young man of 27, I shudder for my future in a state and a country where our politicians, businessmen, union bosses, and civic leaders stand by and let a bunch of nerds with calculators tear up an important transportation resource and denude large areas of the country of basic industry and good-paying jobs.

It shows a complete lack of imagination, courage, and common sense on the part of our politicians, and I’m not at all surprised. A Denver Post article said the cost of the Arkansas Valley line to the railroads is about $20-$25 million. I bet if our state government really wanted to, they could find the money to buy that line and operate it for the public good. But that would take far-sighted leaders with courage and integrity.

At any rate, our leaders would rather invest in baseball stadiums and airports, than work to ensure true economic growth, and that’s frightening.

In the future, after ten years of law suits from irate property owners and environmental cranks, they might end up spending ten or twenty billion dollars to rebuild the Cañon City to Dotsero rail line. But by then Central Colorado will be completely dependent upon the tourism industry and will be like a third-world country. Or do you see tourism-dependent nations like Kenya and the Bahamas as major world powers?

By then, all of our working people will have moved to Aurora in search of good jobs and decent housing. By then, some people may see little reason to maintain expensive highways like 9 and 91, so some genius will suggest tearing them up to build trails.

I don’t know much, having lived only 27 years, but I do know that turning a railroad into a rail trail is not progress.

Daniel G. Jennings