Economic development in rural Northwest Colorado may be headed for a collision with prosperity because of a speeding train.
Members of the Uintah County (Utah) Economic Development Commission, the State of Utah Department of Community and Economic Development, the Utah Department of Transportation and several other groups have put together a plan to construct a railroad extending from Unitah County through Rio Blanco County (Colorado) to Rifle, Colo.
The rail will be used primarily to transport phosphate from eastern Utah to an east and west rail line in Rifle. The exact route of the rail has not been determined and it may go through Piceance Basin north of Meeker to serve the sodium mines and other mining industries in the area.
The railway is expected to stretch 100 to 175 miles and serve the largest deposits of soda ash and phosphate in the world.
Carey Wold, director of the Uintah County Economic Development Center, expects the planning phase of the project to be completed in 18 months to two years. The planning phase will include several studies and public meetings.
"It's going to work out really well; it's just a lot of work," Wold said.
The railroad will link with the national railway system, leading to the immediate development of a four-factory, $200 million phosphate complex in Utah that will provide 2,000 jobs.
"We believe the development of this phosphate complex could create a catalyst for economic growth that will change, for good, the economic future of the whole region," said Herb Synder, chairman of the Uintah County Board of Commissioners.
The railway project is referred to as the "Isolated Empire Rail Project" because it will link a 25,000-square-mile area in Northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah to a nationwide transportation infrastructure that is non-existent in the area. This link has long been viewed by transportation experts as the most important missing link in the United States rail industry.
"This rail line would bring tremendous economic development opportunities to an area of Colorado which presently has minimal transportation infrastructure," said David Solin, director of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens' Office of Economic Development.
Railway planners have not released figures on the project cost, but estimate there is enough need to make the project a lucrative one. A minimum of 3,000,000 tons of freight per year is needed to justify the cost of building and operating a rail line. Preliminary studies show more than 10,000,000 tons of freight can be generated from the Isolated Empire.
Attempts to educate the public on the proposed railroad are just beginning and many government officials aren't up-to-date on the project.
Marianna Raftopoulos, Moffat County commissioner and chair of the National Association of Counties' Transportation and Telecommunication Steering Committee, said she was unaware of the project, but excited about its possibilities. If funding can be found, a spur could be built from Rifle to Craig, giving this area access to enhanced transportation capabilities.
"It would give us another route out of here which would be very beneficial to this area," she said. "I think it's important to get a spur here. Transportation is one of the main issues for our economic future."
The U.S. Department of Transportation has earmarked $1 million next year for the project in its Transportation Appropriations Bill which will be used to begin studies and held as a grant match.
The project may create 3,000 construction jobs per year for three years and more than 2,000 permanent, high-quality jobs.