State officials since last spring have quietly been reaching out to communities along Colorado’s main east-west rail line to gauge local sentiment as the state negotiates a new lease with rail giant Union Pacific, which pays $12,000 a year to send trains through the state-owned Moffat Tunnel.
Union Pacific’s 99-year lease to use the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel expires Jan. 6, 2025, and Kate McIntire, a regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, has been tasked with “developing our list of concerns, potential opportunities, roles, responsibilities, and ways stakeholders would like to ensure they’re involved in the negotiation.”
McIntire, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the recently formed Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit of the Department of Personnel and Administration, will be ramping up outreach this fall and through 2024.
McIntire expects to hear more input from counties and towns along Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line between Denver and Grand Junction about the controversial 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway proposalin Utah. The project would send up to 350,000 additional barrels of oil per day along the route, which travels for about 100 miles along the headwaters of the endangered Colorado River.
“Yes, some of those comments came up and were addressed more directly to Union Pacific,” McIntire said of meetings the state has already held with Denver Water, which uses the Moffat Tunnel’s original 1922 bore hole for transmountain water diversions; Adams, Gilpin, Grand and Jefferson counties; and the cities of Arvada, Golden, Winter Park, Fraser and Kremmling.
Asked to characterize some of the comments she’s hearing on an oil train project that’s already been approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and on the high end would more than quintuple the amount of freight rail traffic on Colorado’s Western Slope, McIntire offered this:
“I’ll just kind of draw back on the fact that we’re really early in a complex process with legal considerations, roles, responsibilities, and potential opportunities that may or may not be tied to the lease,” McIntire said. “But we’re definitely aware of those concerns, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure stakeholders are engaged.”
The city of Denver estimates the Uinta Basin project will quadruple the amount of hazardous materialstransported by rail through the metro area as up to five two-mile-long oil trains a day chug east through the Moffat Tunnel at the base of the city-owned Winter Park Resort ski area and then make their way down through Denver and toward Gulf Coast refineries.
Eagle County, where the Central Corridor rail line separates from Interstate 70 at Dotsero and follows the Colorado River through remote canyons northeast into Grand County, is suing the Surface Transportation Board to overturn or at least more comprehensively consider the down-the-line impacts of Uinta Basin trains from inevitable derailments, spills, wildfires and climate change.
Environmental groups have also filed suit, and Eagle County has the support of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff, Vail, Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties.
Seeking more state support
“Still conspicuously absent in these efforts is the state of Colorado,” Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu wrote in an email. “Anything the state can do to get off the sidelines and participate would be appreciated. We would encourage the state to use all tools at its disposal, including any Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations, to protect every Colorado community along the rail corridor that will be forced to face very real risks of derailment, spills, water contamination and fires.”
Asked to characterize the comments the Nebraska-based railroad company is hearing on the Uinta Basin Railway and whether it’s appropriate for Colorado to consider opposition to the Utah project in its Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver responded: “Union Pacific is aware the Moffat Tunnel lease expires in 2025, and negotiations are underway,” Tysver wrote in an email. “Union Pacific is required by federal law to transport hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including crude oil, fertilizer and chlorine, and 99.9% of the hazardous material shipped by rail reaches its destination safely.”
Union Pacific chief safety officer Rod Doerr on Monday told the Colorado General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee the company hasn’t specifically analyzed the risks of increased oil-train traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway project. The committee will meet again in August to consider potential legislation in the next session that starts in January.
Since the General Assembly first created the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District for taxing purposes in 1922 and still owns the tunnel and administers it via DOLA, the terms of the lease might logically be a topic of discussion.
“It’s crazy that Union Pacific pays Colorado far less rent for the Moffat Tunnel than the median price of a studio apartment in Denver,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing to stop the oil trains. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for (Gov. Jared Polis) to protect Colorado communities, our water, our rivers, and our public lands from hazardous materials spills from trains that travel through the Moffat Tunnel.”
Eagle County’s Treu, who said he’s yet to hear from the state on the Moffat lease, would like to see a lot more pushback from the state against federal approvals for the Utah oil-train partnership backing the project, which is still seeking funding via tax-exempt U.S. Department of Transportation bonds.
“We asked the (Colorado Attorney General’s) office to participate as an amicus party in our litigation against the Surface Transportation Board,” Treu said. “The state declined, leaving us to fend for ourselves. That response was surprising considering the crux of this litigation is STB’s complete failure to consider the downline impacts to the sensitive Colorado River corridor through all of Colorado. This isn’t just an Eagle County issue.”
The office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser responded with the following statement:
“As the Attorney General said in his letter to the federal government, the Uinta Basin Railway proposal is as risky to our environment and communities as it is unsupported by Coloradans. It should not move forward. And it most definitely should not receive federal subsidies. The Attorney General’s Office has visited with advocates on the risks the UBR poses to our state, has collaborated with Colorado’s congressional delegation on options to prevent construction, and is committed to visiting with any group with ideas on how to protect Colorado’s environment from this risky venture.” From left, Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, state Sen. Dylan Roberts, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie participate in a press conference near Interstate 70 at the confluence of Grizzly Creek and the Colorado River to voice opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway Project, April 7, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
In various forms, both Colorado U.S. senators — Democrats Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — and a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation, particularly Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, have reached out to a variety of federal agencies to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway.
Jonathan Godes, a Glenwood Springs City Council member and former mayor whose term ended in April, said he has yet to be contacted by DOLA on the Moffat Tunnel lease, but he looks forward to hearing from McIntire, who is a former Grand County manager and former acting Jefferson County manager.
Godes says he doesn’t yet have enough information to comment on the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations or possibly using them to restrict hazardous material transport through Glenwood.
“But I will say that I’m really glad that both of our senators, Congressman Neguse, commissioners in Eagle County, Grand County, and leaders in dozens of municipalities all agree that this is objectively and definitively a horrible idea for our communities, for the Western Slope, the mountain communities in the state of Colorado,” Godes said. “I’m looking forward to when the state decides to join up with our congressional delegation and our local leaders in solidarity against this abomination.”
Tennessee Pass Line
Terry Armistead, a Minturn Town Council member, mayor pro tem, and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, made it clear she was not speaking for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she acknowledged she has spoken to McIntire.
“In regards to the Tennessee Pass Line, I heard nothing in that short meeting of any substance, unfortunately. It was kind of anticlimactic,” Armistead said of a long-dormant Union Pacific rail line that connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero and heads southeast along the Eagle and Arkansas rivers to Pueblo — a route that if revived would avoid the Moffat Tunnel and Denver altogether.
That is one of the fears Eagle County expressed in its litigation — added pressure to restart rail traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line through Avon and the former mining and railroad towns of Minturn and Red Cliff off the backside of Vail Mountain.
Armistead said she started calling Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who used to be mayor and still lives in Minturn, four years ago when the TPL revival idea first came up, telling him, “Minturn is too small a voice in the room, and we can’t do this alone; the county needs to speak for all of us.” She supports the county’s position regarding the Moffat Tunnel lease and would like to see Union Pacific be allowed to formally abandon the TPL for an outdoor recreation trail.
“I’m not going to mince words. I would love to see (the Tennessee Pass) rail ripped up,” Armistead said of the line that’s been dormant since 1997 — the year after a Union Pacific and Southern Pacific merger. “I would love to see them sell us, or sell somebody the land, and develop the rail yard in Minturn. I’ve been saying it for years.”
DOLA’s McIntire could not say if the status of the Tennessee Pass Line will be at all considered in the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, since it’s a separate and active Union Pacific rail line.
“We’re still very early in this process and we really haven’t determined whether that’s a separate issue or not,” McIntire said. “I don’t want to come out and say that that’s not going to be something that we’re going to address.”
For Union Pacific, which did try to formally abandon the TPL in the late 1990s after the merger — only to be snubbed on that front by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — it’s somewhat of a moot point.
“We have no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass,” Union Pacific’s Tysver said.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: email@example.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.