Railroad battle begins

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It may be the biggest boon to economic development in Northwest Colorado and several counties want a piece of the action.

The project has been referred to as the Isolated Empire Railroad project, with plans to begin in Uintah County, Utah destination unknown. But there are several projected scenarios where the line travels through Meeker, Craig or bypasses most of Colorado and runs through Wyoming, and county commissioners from several counties want to sit on the board that determines the route.

The rail will be used primarily for the transportation of 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 might go through Piceance Basin north of Meeker to serve the sodium mines and other extractive industries in the 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.

Representatives from Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC) have asked to have a larger part in the railroad planning process.

"We've asked the governor to help us establish a partnership in the planning process," AGNC director Jim Evans said.

They will get it, but not to the degree they'd hoped.

The project representatives from Utah have requested that Colorado form a working group or steering committee as a counterpart to an existing Utah Steering Committee for the ongoing review and feedback for the consultants who will conduct a four-phase feasibility study.

The plan calls for five Colorado representatives, a representative from the governor's office, a person from the Colorado Department of Transportation, a Rio Blanco county commissioner, the Rangely mayor and the AGNC Chairman to sit on the executive committee. The current AGNC chairman is also the Rio Blanco county commissioner.

AGNC board members, including Moffat County Commissioner Joe Janosec, lobbied that the structure of the Colorado Executive Committee be changed to accommodate commissioners from the three counties the railroad could impact Moffat, Rio Blanco and Garfield.

"I feel very strongly that our taxpayers should have representation on the committee," Janosec said.

But larger concerns have been raised. According to Rio Blanco County Commissioner Kim Cook, a permit has not even been issued to mine phosphate in Uintah County. A pipeline will also be needed, for which a permit has not been granted either.

"They haven't even taken the first steps," Cook said. "We're just wondering how viable this even is."

The Colorado side of the planning groups is far ahead of the Utah side, he said.

"Why are we spending $800,000 on a study when the permits are not even in place yet?" Joe Collins, Rio Blanco County Commissioner and AGNC chairman asked.

Feasibility studies will be funding with Federal Department of Transportation Grants totally $1.3 million. Grant funds of $871,000 have been approved to be spent on the studies with a $500,000 request still pending Congressional appropriation.

According to Evans, those funds should be sufficient for four study elements:

n Rail Alignment Engineering Study estimated time two to three months.

n Commercial Freight/Marketing Study estimated time four to six months.

n Regional Socioeconomic Impact/Benefit Study estimated time four to five months.

n Preliminary Environmental Study estimated time six to eight months.

A full-scale Environmental Impact Study, if necessary, would be dependent on obtaining additional funds," Evans said.

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.

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 million 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 million tons of freight can be generated in the Isolated Empire.

"We could do so much with a railroad," Wold 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."

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