Feds delay decision on Union Pacific bid to revive part of Tennessee Pass rail line

February 1, 2021, 12:29 pm

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) on Friday issued a continuance in the closely watched case of Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway’s bid for an exemption that would seal a lease deal with Union Pacific for passenger and freight service on the Tennessee Pass Line.

The deal would have gone into effect Friday without the continuance.

The STB’s decision delays the process at least several more weeks and provides additional time for Eagle County and Avon – and several other groups opposed to the deal — to provide more input on a plan that would have allowed for the resumption of rail service on 163 miles of Union Pacific’s tracks that haven’t seen trains since 1997.

Colorado, Midland & Pacific, a subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific, was seeking a “non-controversial exemption” to lease UP’s tracks between Sage – a point on the railroad map just north of the Eagle County Regional Airport – to Parkdale, just west of the Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River. The line bisects Eagle County and runs through Eagle, Edwards, Avon and Minturn on its way over Tennessee Pass at Ski Cooper.

Nearly seven miles of active UP track between Sage and Dotsero, where the Tennessee Pass Line connects with UP’s active Moffat Tunnel Line – were not included in the lease deal. That small section of UP track services the American Gypsum wallboard plant in Gypsum.

“We respect the STB process,” Sara Cassidy, a Colorado, Midland & Pacific spokeswoman, said in an email on Friday. “These type of delays and postponements are not unusual and are a routine part of the regulatory process.”

The STB this week also extended the deadline for submitting comments on its draft EIS for Rio Grande Pacific’s proposed Uinta Basin Railway project in Utah, which opponents of the Tennessee Pass Line project say could send oil trains southeast along the Colorado, Eagle and Arkansas rivers on their way to Gulf Coast refineries.

Cassidy has repeatedly insisted Colorado Midland has no plans to transport oil on the Tennessee Pass Line (TPL) despite the involvement of its parent company in the Uinta Basin project and Rio Grande’s overall involvement in servicing the fossil fuel industry.

An attorney representing Eagle County, Avon and Chaffee County (along the Arkansas River) touted the two recent STB extensions as victories in the effort to provide more input and to allow for the proper level of scrutiny. American Whitewater, a nonprofit river advocacy group, is calling for a full Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal to resurrect the TPL.

Cassidy on Sunday replied with a lengthy statement (see below in its entirety) to a follow-up email on the opponents of the Colorado Midland project continuing to link the revival of the UP line to the Utah oil fields.

Rio Grande’s Uinta Basin project has the financial backing of Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners – a Rio Grande partner on other oil and gras projects. If it comes to fruition, Uinta crude would likely have to use UP’s active Moffat Tunnel Line along the Colorado River and right through the heart of downtown Denver if the Tennessee Pass Line is not revived.

The Moffat Line, which rail observers say is near capacity, travels through Grand Junction and Glenwood Canyon, then veers northeast at Dotsero, traveling through the spectacular Gore Canyon on the Upper Colorado before passing through the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel at Winter Park. Then it descends through another 35 tunnels before arriving at Denver’s Union Station.

State of Colorado officials have long identified the Tennessee Pass Line as a vital rail corridor and the only alternative to the Moffat Tunnel Line as a way to move freight and passengers across the Continental Divide in Colorado, especially as the Western Slope develops more.

Colorado Pacific Railroad, a small railway owned by the agricultural company KCVN, objected to Colorado Midland’s lease deal, citing UP’s control of the TPL as anti-competitive in KCVN’s bid to either take over the line or lease it for the transport of grain to the West Coast. The STB also put off a bid by Colorado Pacific to obtain a copy of the Colorado Midland-UP lease.

Now here’s the full follow-up statement from Colorado Midland’s Sara Cassidy on opponents continuing to link the company’s lease deal with UP and bid to revive the Tennessee Pass Line with transporting oil from Utah:

“Colorado Midland & Pacific agrees with the State of Colorado and its 2018 Freight and Passenger Rail Plan which identifies the Tennessee Pass rail line as a corridor of statewide significance for its potential to carry both passengers and freight. A vision of the plan is to enhance mobility and advance economic vitality. As recently as 2020, CDOT advised the legislature, if the Tennessee Pass rail line were available, the state should consider purchasing it to preserve it for freight and/or passenger service in the future.

“Communities along the line have published goals related to tourism, supporting economic development and a recreation-based economy, addressing workforce housing challenges, managing highway traffic and congestion, and identifying transportation uses that support environmental goals and climate action plans. Utilizing the Tennessee Pass rail line can help achieve these goals. Moving people and freight by rail would reduce the carbon footprint of current highway use — removing cars and trucks from the road, and helping manage projected growth in population, tourism and related growth in movement of goods. The Town of Eagle’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan includes an action item to ‘Work to retain the rail corridor for future freight and public transportation. Conduct study for future location of a commuter rail station within the Town.’We are eager to partner with Eagle and other communities to consider how to pursue these plans.

“Colorado Midland & Pacific believes there are 21st century opportunities to utilize the rail line to help accomplish community goals throughout the ~160-mile corridor. 

“I cannot speak for other railroads’ bold claims about cost, or opine on their process for pre-determining what is and is not viable. An unsuccessful application* to the STB from a different company proposed to move oil on the Tennessee Pass rail line. Colorado Midland & Pacific’s filing for Tennessee Pass does not propose to move oil.

“Colorado Midland & Pacific understands there are many perspectives about reestablishing rail service. We want to consider all perspectives when evaluating the feasibility of commuter and passenger rail and local freight in accordance with state and local goals to do so. We remain excited about it.

“We are on the record with the STB stating there are existing routes that are more cost effective and efficient for routing through-freight from outside the line – we have no plan or business case for it.”

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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