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Opponents to the restoration of the Tennessee Pass rail lines are making themselves known to the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

The federal agency received a filing Dec. 31 from Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway (CMP) to lease the 163-mile segment from Union Pacific Railroad Company. The tracks have been dormant since 1997, and it appears that locals are not keen on that situation changing.

CMP, a subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific, says it is in an exploratory phase with communities along the line and that the filing doesn’t necessarily mean freight or passenger trains will run on the tracks. But either way, letters to the STB show strong opposition to rail service restoration and moreover, historic and environmental exemptions sought by CMP.

Critics continue to bring up the possibility of oil out of northeastern Utah being hauled on the tracks – even though CMP says that is not the plan.

The Uinta Basin Railway, to be operated by Rio Grande Pacific, would connect the reserves to the larger railway network, and those in opposition say that network could include the Tennessee Pass line and environmentally sensitive areas such as Browns Canyon. The STB has issued a draft environmental impact statement for the Uinta Basin project, with comments due by Jan. 28.

The opposition to the Tennessee Pass line restoration includes several Chaffee County locals as well as the Arkansas River Outfitters Association and the county’s Board of Commissioners (BoCC).

“The County Commissioners of Chaffee County, Colorado strongly oppose granting the Lease and Operation Exemption requested by the Rio Grande Pacific (RGP) on behalf of its subsidiary, Colorado Midland & Pacific Company,” said the board’s Jan. 15 letter to the STB filed by Commissioner Keith Baker.

“While such exemptions are sometimes granted for older railways being restored from dormancy, we maintain that conditions have changed significantly since this railway was in operation and its exemption request warrants close consideration,” the letter said. “The great concerns of our citizens, the extreme imposition on the local communities, and the cultural and environmental values at risk are each reason for denial. Reactivation of the Tennessee Pass Line (TPL) without careful scrutiny is neither “routine” nor “uncontroversial.”

Baker’s letter on behalf of the Chaffee BoCC went on to say that hauling any potentially hazardous material alongside the Upper Arkansas River would be “unconscionable, and expediting the TPL’s reactivation without careful scrutiny even more so.

“Additionally, the impacts that could be anticipated from noise and disruptive nature of an active railway are not palatable to the residents now living within the line’s potential path, nor to the destination tourists who flock to Chaffee County and contribute substantially to the local economic vibrancy.”

The Outfitters Association, representing 30 outfitters on the Arkansas River, wrote to the STB Jan. 12 to oppose both the Tennessee Pass plan as well as approval of the Uinta Basin Railway Environmental Impact Statement.

“Browns Canyon in combination with Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Royal Gorge provide recreation for over 200,000 rafting and kayaking commercial clients,” the letter read. “This is a $66 million economic impact to the river communities of Buena Vista, Salida and Cañon City in addition to the smaller towns in the valley. The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, Colorado’s most unique state park, encompasses this stretch of river as well. The AHRA received receipts of $ 1,467,327.21 in 2019 from camping, agreements, passes and special activities.

“The potential for a negative impact to this remarkable resource from one accident is too great of a risk,” the letter continued. “This rail line has been dormant for close to 24 years and is in serious disrepair. Even when this line was operating full time we experienced numerous mishaps. A crude oil spill would destroy a resource we have worked hard to resurrect from the abuse of heavy metal spills from the mining industry.”

The letter was signed by Outfitters Association Executive Director Bob Hamel, President Mike Kissack and Board Member Bill Dvorak.