Plans to build a railroad through Uintah County, Utah to Rifle aren't moving as fast as a speeding train, but they are progressing.
Project organizers have secured grant funds to proceed with several feasibility studies that mark the beginning stages of a plan that could take up to five years to implement. Once complete, the railroad could mean an economic boon for northwest Colorado and eastern Utah.
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, but the line might go through Piceance Basin north of Meeker to serve the sodium mines and other extractive industries in that area.
The railway is expected to stretch 100 to 175 miles and transport some of the world's largest deposits of soda ash and phosphate.
Carey Wold, director of the Uintah County Economic Development Center, expects the planning phase of the project to be completed in 12 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, $200,000 phosphate complex in Utah which 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 northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah to a nationwide transportation infrastructure that is currently 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 Gov. Owens' Office of Economic Development.
Railway planners have not yet released figures on the total 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 that more than 10,000,000 tons of freight can be generated in the Isolated Empire.
The team involved in studying the proposed rail line traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials with the Federal Railroad Adminis-tration and the Association of American Railroads to brief them on the project.
"Their attitude was one of great interest," Wold said. "Let's put it this way, they are more aware and supportive of the benefits this project will bring our region."
The project has already gained significant steam. Last April, $1,000,000 was appropriated through a Federal Transportation and Community Systems Preservation grant for a series of feasibility studies. Team members have applied for an additional $65,000 in federal grant money for planning and feasibility studies.
Several studies are planned or are underway. They include:
n A $50,000 contract was recently awarded to analyze potential railroad routes and determine cost estimates. Work on the route study is scheduled to begin this week.
n The contract for a commercial market and freight study is expected to be awarded this summer. The study will research the types and amounts of freight proposed to be shipped into and out of the area.
n A contract for a regional impact study will be put out for bid later this summer. The study will determine how all aspects of a railroad would affect area tax bases, schools, law enforcement and infrastructure.
n An application to the Surface Transportation Board to ensure all work is being done in compliance with federal law will start within the next few months.
Public meetings will also be held in all affected areas throughout the summer and fall, Wold said.
"We could do so much with a railroad," he said. "Having a railroad is a great idea, but putting it into practice is something else. Now, we are all working together to take a real look at the potential and possibility."
Local officials are excited about the impacts the railroad might have on Moffat County. If funding can be found, it is possible a spur could be built from Rifle to Craig, giving this area access to enhanced transportation capabilities.
"Transportation is one of the main issues for our economic future," Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said.
The project is estimated to create 3,000 construction jobs per year for three years and more than 2,000 permanent, high-paying jobs.
"Towns could have long-term employment stability, environmentally friendly industry and transportation if we can get this railroad," Wold said.