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Rio Grande Trail Access Control Plan rolls ahead

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By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

A controversial plan for limiting and controlling uses along the Rio Grand Trail, a 34-mile ribbon of asphalt used by bicyclists, hikers and other non-motorized travelers between Glenwood Springs and Woody Creek, is headed for a vote of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors in about a month.

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In the interim, area governments that are members of RFTA are expected to study the draft ACP and make any additional comments, beyond previous comments that were made over the past couple of years, on the proposed Access Control Plan (ACP).

That plan has been mired in negotiations and objections by some, including the governments of Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, that the plan was too restrictive.

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Recently, as the new draft of the plan was being finalized, there have been indications that the revisions to the ACP have been sufficient to lessen or eliminate concerns expressed by the member governments.

The ACP is part of the overall set of requirements put in place when RFTA’s predecessor, the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority (or RFRHA), purchased the century-old Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad right of way in 1997.

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This purchase followed years of declining freight rail traffic in the valley, and was viewed as a way of preserving the right of way for public use rather than see it revert to ownership by landholders on either side of the old railroad.

The right of way was then “railbanked” under the guidelines of the National Surface Transportation Board and other agencies, giving rise to requirements that RFTA update its comprehensive plan for use of the rail, and the ACP, every five years — updates that were accomplished in 2005 and started in 2010.

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Essentially, the regulations require that RFTA continuously protect the right of way from any activities (such as construction of structures or crossings) that might get in the way of the agency’s mission to preserve the old rail bed for possible resumption of rail travel (either for freight or passenger-train use) in the future.

The current update is running about seven years late, said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship, because the transit agency’s staff turned its attention several years ago to creating the current mass-transit program known as Bus Rapid Transit (or by its nickname, VelociRFTA).

When the agency resumed work on updating the ACP a couple of years ago, opposition erupted from Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Garfield County, where officials were worried that the ACP’s provisions concerning crossings placed too many restrictions, and resulting high costs of building crossings, for the jurisdictions to accept.

The current draft of the ACP, which is posted on the RFTA website under the “Railroad Corridor” and  “Trail Documentation” menus, is a reworking of the plan’s language to address the objections to the first draft.

And, according to Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson, who sits on the RFTA Board of Directors, the current draft appears to have taken care of Carbondale’s concerns.

“I went into that (a recent meeting about the revisions to the ACP) skeptical,” Richardson said, “but I came out of it feeling pretty comfortable.”

He predicted that Carbondale’s Board of Trustees probably will be as comfortable as he with the language of the new draft version of the ACP.

In particular, he said, the current draft establishes that existing or future crossings of the right of way will be governed by easements, rather than the previous use of crossing “licenses” that Carbondale officials felt posed too many potential “complications.”

For example, while both easements and licenses are revocable, meaning RFTA can withdraw its permission for a crossing under certain circumstances, Richardson said that the license method is “much more revocable” and thus was not acceptable.

An easement, he said, offers greater assurance that a crossing, once allowed, will be retained even if rail service ultimately is resumed on the right of way.

A letter sent from the town to RFTA in 2016, which Town Manager Jay Harrington said is still the town’s official position, adds that the town is appreciative of RFTA’s pledge to take a “common sence” approach to crossing applications, and will not be “dictatorial” in its review of such applications.

Published remarks by Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba also have indicated satisfaction that the present draft takes care of that town’s objections, as well.

The ACP is scheduled for consideration at the RFTA board’s April 13 meeting, for a first reading, followed by second reading and possible adoption in May.

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 16, 2017. 
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