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City of Salida supports rail banking proposal

One of the important towns along the 180-mile Tennessee Pass railroad corridor supports preservation of the line through railbanking and trail development.

By Chris Hunt

Map of Colorado

The city of Salida Monday night agreed to put its name down on the list of entities willing to financially support railbanking efforts of the Canon City-Dotsero rail line, if a suitable operator isn't found to continue rail service through the Arkansas Valley.

Steve Reese, park manager of Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, has been busy promoting a newly created trail feasibility study that would convert the railroad bed through the Upper Arkansas Valley into a trail and, at the same time, preserve the rail corridor for future rail traffic.

photo: Along the Arkansas River on the Tennessee Pass rail corridor
Along the Arkansas River on the Tennessee Pass rail corridor (photo by Stuart Macdonald)

The Union Pacific-Southern Pacific merger will soon leave the valley without any rail service.

The study suggests that the four counties immediately affected by Southern Pacific's pull-out raise about $500,000 in "matching" funds to put toward a Great Outdoors Colorado Legacy grant worth about $4 million. Add that to the $1 million Colorado State Parks has pledged,and the effort to bank the rail line would have $5 million to work with.

According to Reese, Eagle County, which would be affected by the highest amount of use if the rail corridor was banked, has agreed to put up half of the $500,000, leaving Lake, Chaffee and Fremont counties to make up the $250,000 difference -- or about $88,000 per county. The city pledged about a third of the county's share to the project Monday night.

"We are going to lose rail service," Reese said. "There is nothing we can do about that." But, he explained, the people and the municipalities of the valley can invest in an insurance policy. "If we don't bank the rail corridor, and it reverts back to private ownership, we'll never get a rail line through here again," Reese said. By banking the rail corridor, Reese said, the possibility of another operator one day running trains through the valley becomes very real.

What is there to bank? Right now, Southern Pacific has the option of selling the track or the track rights to another rail operator. There are a number of potential buyers, but there's a catch with each one.

According to Reese, WesternRail, or LSBC Holdings Inc., wants to purchase the entire line, which is fine with UP. WesternRail doesn't want to stop there, however. It wants to procure track rights on other UP lines, and compete with UP for freight service. This, Reese said, is not all right with UP, and that's why a sale hasn't been negotiated yet.

Several other groups out there want to purchase portions of the line, too. The company that owns the Royal Gorge Bridge wants to purchase the stretch of track that follows the Arkansas River through the gorge, from Canon City to Parkdale. Another group, out of Eagle County, has expressed interest in purchasing the line from Malta, just south of Leadville, to about Gypsum for a commuter line.

This leaves the stretch going from eastern Fremont County through Chaffee County and well into Lake County wide open. So far, UP hasn't considered any offers from buyers wanting to get their hands on that stretch. If no operator is found, the corridor will be deeded to the state. Banking at least this stretch, if not more, Reese said, would insure the possibility of future rail service to the valley.

Property taxes will be affected.

When SP pulls out of the valley completely, in September of 1997, each county containing portions of the rail line will lose about $70,000 per year in property taxes. But, Reese said, what's lost in property taxes could be made up in the economic impact trail users would have on the valley and in user fees for the trail.

The committee that put together the feasibility study projects a combined positive economic impact of about $2.5 million a year, not including about $35,000 in sales taxes in each county each year. This would come from the 150,000 to 200,000 people using the trail each year. This is another reason Reese is seeking support for the plan. "If the railline isn't banked, those counties will never see those sales tax revenues again," he said. With a trail, the local economies will still benefit from the corridor, he explained.

What would the trail be like?

The trail along the corridor would be about 10 feet wide in most places. Its surface would likely be gravel, except for a few locations where it might be paved, through a city or town.

According to Reese, if no operator is found, and the line is deeded to the state, Union Pacific would salvage the track and the equipment along the line. When pulling out the track, the company would grade the railroad bed to an even surface. UP's salvage operation would save the builders of the trail a small fortune. Once the bed is graded, landscape fabric would be laid. After that, the gravel surface would be laid on. Reese noted that the biggest expense in the whole operation would probably be in maintenance and upkeep of the trail.

What if it isn't banked?

If the land is deeded to the state, which, in turn, lets it go back to private ownership (only about 1 percent of the entire line would revert to private hands -- the rest reverts back to federal or state land or can be sold to private owners) the danger of non-management becomes very real. What Reese means by non-management is that the corridor, which is easily accessible, could become a haven for parties or a favorite spot for illegal dumping.

He also pointed out that UP currently controls the week population along the corridor, and it also maintains the 560 culverts along the railroad bed. "We have to act now on this," Reese said. If not, this corridor will disappear. Keeping this corridor intact is important. It's very difficult to reinstate train traffic on a non-banked corridor."

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