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The Chaffee County Board of Commissioners is leery of a proposed rail project in northeastern Utah and the impact to Chaffee County for years to come, as a result.

In the growing story about the Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway (CMP) and its Dec. 31 filing with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to lease the majority of the Tennessee Pass line from Union Pacific, the commissioners agreed this past Tuesday to join with a regional consortium in objections to the STB’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) regarding the proposed Uinta Basin Railway.

The tracks would provide an 85-mile link from oil shale reserves to the larger network of rails out of Utah. Comments on the impact statement are due Jan. 28.

The Unita Basin Railway is a proposed link to the oil shale reserves of northeastern Utah.

What does the line in Utah have to do with Chaffee County?

The parent company of CMP, Rio Grande Pacific, plans to operate the Utah railway. Should the oil shale reserves get tapped and the waxy crude placed on trains, the theory is that Tennessee Pass could become part of the route to the Gulf Coast refineries.

Chaffee County’s commissioners want that aspect placed on the record with the STB, pointing out that the draft EIS was created before the Tennessee Pass deal was announced.

CMP has stated that it has no plans to haul oil on the Tennessee Pass segment; 163 miles of track that runs through Fremont, Chaffee, Lake, and Eagle Counties. The railway says it is in an exploratory phase with communities along the route, which could carry passenger or freight trains. It also says the Dec. 31 filing is no guarantee that trains will once again run on the Tennessee Pass line, which has been dormant since 1997.

The commissioners are among Chaffee County residents and factions who commented earlier in the month to the STB regarding CMP’s filing and its requested exemptions on historic and environmental documentation. The local comments were overwhelmingly against trains running through Brown’s Canyon National Monument and other environmentally sensitive areas. The comments on the draft EIS in Utah are a separate matter.

Despite statements from CMP, locals aren’t backing off opposition to the idea of oil being transported through the county. Commissioner Keith Baker said that as things stand, the Moffat Route would be the likely primary route in Colorado should the Uinta Basin Railway come into service. But he said that doesn’t rule out Tennessee Pass as a “likely and foreseeable consequence” of the project.

Baker serves as vice-chair for the San Luis Valley Transportation Planning Region, is on the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee, and is an advisor for Chaffee County Transportation Advisory Board.

Commissioner Greg Felt said there is the potential of the railroad issue becoming “a huge part of our landscape here — possibly for generations.” He said it was a good idea to join forces with the group forming out of Eagle County, but that it may not be a permanent arrangement. For example, the segment from Leadville to Eagle stands to have the most commercial viability for passenger service should the tracks be revived, whereas Chaffee County may not share that interest in the future.

The regional consortium currently consists of Eagle, Lake and Chaffee counties, with Avon and Eagle County shouldering the bulk of the administrative coordination and paying for legal counsel from Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, a firm with a considerable background in rail and transit litigation. Chaffee County is contributing financially to the cause and it is possible that additional governments and organizations add their voices and further split the bills.

For the time being, Salida and Buena Vista are working on the issue through Chaffee County, said Baker.

Commissioner Rusty Granzella said Chaffee County needs to work to protect the Arkansas River and the large number of livelihoods here that depend on it, and all three commissioners agreed that the situation warrants considerable discussion moving forward.

“I don’t think we’ve had a real conversation yet about where we stand,” added Felt.

The commissioners also discussed a few of the ramifications Tuesday – aside from environmental concerns – of trains being reestablished on Tennessee Pass, including traffic backups, the impacts on fire, police and other emergency response, as well as the trend for longer trains.

The commissioners plan to review the group comments on the draft EIS before it gets sent to the STB. Baker said the individual parties are free to submit their own comments should they have major issues with the letter being drafted for the group.