Eagle County got the attention of the Surface Transportation Board this week, prompting the agency to make a 15-day extension on the comment period for a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed Uinta Basin Railway in northeastern Utah. Comments are now due Feb. 12.
Chaffee County has joined efforts to comment with with Eagle County and the Town of Avon, bringing attention to the Tennessee Pass Line and how it could in the future fit into plans to deliver oil shale out of the Uinta Basin and onward to the larger rail network.
On Tuesday, Buena Vista’s board of trustees unanimously agreed to sign on with Chaffee County’s comments. County Commissioner Keith Baker was on the call, continuing to question the plan in Utah and how it could play out locally.
“I think it’s pretty clear that that railway could have an impact on whatever happens with the Tennessee Pass Line,” he said, adding that he continued to be curious about possibilities for passenger rail.
Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway (CMPR) filed with the Surface Transportation Board Dec. 31 to lease 163 miles of the Tennessee Pass Line from Union Pacific. CMPR is a subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific Corp., which plans to operate the 85-mile Uinta Basin Railway if it is approved.
Since Dec. 31, CMPR has repeatedly claimed that it doesn’t plan to haul oil on Tennessee Pass should the line be reactivated, and provided comments as such in a Jan. 27 filing with the Surface Transportation Board, in which CMPR responded to a motion to reject by Colorado Pacific Railroad. Colorado Pacific, hoping to use Tennessee Pass as a mountain shortcut for hauling grain, had made a previous bid to obtain the Tennessee Pass Line from Union Pacific.
CMPR spokesperson Sara Cassidy addressed the oil-train speculation at Tuesday’s meeting. She told the trustees the railway is focused on passenger service and getting feedback from stakeholders on the line, which runs through Fremont, Chaffee, Lake and Eagle counties.
She added: “we also intend to explore commercial opportunities,” including the “development of freight services.”
The trustees entertained some positive discussion about the opportunities in passenger service, which could serve as a tourist venue as well as employee transportation. They also touched on the possibilities of freight trains running through town and the logistics of Buena Vista’s three at-grade crossings. The line has been dormant since 1997.
The Surface Transportation Board’s Jan. 28 notice to extend the comment period for the impact statement reiterated CMPR’s claims regarding oil trains.
“According to Rio Grande and CMPR, the primary objective of the proposed lease and reactivation of the Tennessee Pass Line would be to provide passenger rail service,” the notice read, “and it would not be practical or economical to transport oil on the Tennessee Pass Line. OEA (Office of Environmental Analysis) is nevertheless providing a 15-day comment period extension to allow Eagle County and other concerned stakeholders to further evaluate and comment on the Draft EIS for the proposed Uinta Basin Railway.”
Baker said Thursday, however, that “we have to address the possibility” of trains connecting to oil shale reserves in Utah. He said that the railroads may indeed be sincere about not hauling oil here, but that the situation could change, for example, if any of the railroads changed hands in the future.