Two trains on Amtrak’s California Zephyr line pass each other east of Glenwood Springs on Sept. 2, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
While Eagle County officials and environmentalists have been high-fiving over their collective federal court win this month at least temporarily derailing a nearly $3 billion Utah oil train project — and Utah politicians have been fuming — other stakeholders in Colorado are girding for future battles and hoping passengers can replace petroleum along the line.
“I’m heartened by the court decision as it will stop this dangerous and poorly-reviewed project — for now,” said state Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat who lives near dormant Union Pacific tracks and the Eagle River in Avon. “However, should the (Uinta Basin Railway) project be pursued in the future, and given the potential for catastrophic damage to the Colorado River and the communities that depend on it — many of the communities I represent — we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect our water and environment, and I look forward to involving the legislature in this issue.”
As the chair of the Colorado Water Resources and Agriculture Review interim committee, Roberts said he’ll be putting the topic of Colorado freight rail traffic on its agenda starting Sept. 12. Oil trains carrying waxy crude from Utah’s Uinta Basin already travel on Union Pacific’s Central Corridor line that runs through Grand Junction and Denver, including 100 miles along the Colorado River.
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In 2021, the proposed 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway was approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — the federal regulatory agency in charge of the nation’s rail network — but the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., found the STB’s environmental review of the project woefully inadequate, and it sided with Eagle County against a massive expansion of the nation’s oil-train traffic. Oil train proponents now have to start over and better consider the risks of wildfires and spills into the endangered Colorado River and its high-altitude tributaries.
“I plan to ask (the Colorado Department of Local Affairs), the governor’s administration, rail operators, and environmental advocates to weigh in on what the state is and is not doing to prevent an accident,” Roberts said. “We also have the purview to pursue legislation in this area related to tunnel lease costs, adequate financing to cover emergency response and cleanup, and much more.”
DOLA, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit of the Department of Personnel and Administration, has been meeting with communities along Union Pacific’s Central Corridor line between Denver and Grand Junction as Colorado renegotiates the terms of its lease with the railroad for use of the state-owned Moffat Tunnel. The current 99-year, $12,000 annual lease expires Jan. 6, 2025.
Union Pacific is responsible for the operation, maintenance, repair and insurance for the 6.2-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide at Winter Park — the only currently active east-west rail line through the Colorado Rockies and the most logical route for Utah oil headed to Gulf Coast refineries and global markets.
Utah U.S. Sen. Mike Lee wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “It is deeply concerning to see decisions that appear more influenced by ‘woke environmentalism’ rather than grounded, data-driven evaluations.”
But the appeals court ruled a new, typically multi-year environmental impact statement process needs to be undertaken to consider the impacts of increasing oil train traffic between Utah and the Gulf Coast by a factor of 10 (from about 30,000 barrels a day to 350,000 barrels a day), which would ultimately account for nearly 1% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The publicly funded Seven Counties Infrastructure Coalition in Utah and its private partner, the DHIP Group — formerly Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners — reportedly indicated a willingness to go back to the drawing board with the STB and keep the project moving: “We are ready, willing, and capable of working with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to ensure additional reviews and the project’s next steps proceed without further delay. We look forward to bringing this railway to the basin.” The parties might also consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
‘God and then the railroads’
Whatever comes next, Eagle County, where Union Pacific’s Central Corridor crosses its northwestern corner and travels through the rugged, remote canyons of the Colorado River, will be ready. But next time county officials will be hoping for a little more help from their friends.
“Utah came out in favor of it and was active. Pressure from our state is critical,” Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said, lauding the efforts of Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse. “That support will make a difference if the proposal comes through again to the Surface Transportation Board. Everybody’s going be watching it, including our congressional leaders and hopefully the governor and the attorney general this next time.”
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser did go on the record opposing the federal government issuing up to $2 billion in tax-exempt U.S. Department of Transportation private activity bonds to help pay for the railway, but Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has not weighed in on the proposal.
Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu unsuccessfully urged the attorney general’s office to participate in an amicus brief supporting the county’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the STB’s approval — a brief that did see the backing of the cities of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff and Vail and the county governments of Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin.
“We saw all these communities kind of coalesce after the fact and write the amicus brief of support, and we appreciate it,” Treu said, adding that a hopefully even larger coalition will come together if the proponents reapply. “We’ll certainly be working more closely with them, probably more hand in hand, and hopefully the state will get off the sidelines.”
Eagle County bore the brunt of the legal fees, however, paying the Denver-based law firm of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell almost $450,000 over the past three years.
“It wasn’t cheap,” Treu said. “We were kind of left to fend for ourselves, and we spent a lot of money in the defense of this case where we think other people could have participated and helped. A lot of the cities and counties around us did, and we certainly appreciate it. But going forward next time, we’re hoping we’ll have a little bit more help.”
Chandler-Henry hopes Moffat Tunnel lease discussions will not only focus on rail safety but also possible enhancement of passenger rail and light freight alternatives to take pressure off Interstate 70.
“It’s pretty dire — that big artery coming right through the mountains, and it’s not going to get any better,” Chandler-Henry said of frequent closures on I-70. “We can’t pave our way out of this, so we’ve got to have an alternative. This Moffat Tunnel lease, that does seem like our opportunity to make the railroad talk to us. What is it, God and then the railroads as far as who runs things?”
For Winter Park Mayor Nick Kutrumbos, the passenger rail possibilities of the Moffat Tunnel and Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line are critical to the town and surrounding Grand County’s future.
“From our perspective, we view the rail line as an asset in our community because of our proximity to Denver, and, obviously, the Winter Park Express ski train and Amtrak,” Kutrumbos said. “We have some stakeholders, including Winter Park Resort, (ski area operator) Alterra and some private landowners, developers, and the town, who understand that there’s a lot of growth … and one of the things that we really are looking at hard and how to handle that growth is to use multimodal transportation to alleviate traffic on Berthoud Pass and on I-70.”
Growing up in the area in the 80s and 90s, Kutrumbos remembers when there were 10 or 12 coal trains a day rumbling through Grand County between Denver and the Powder River Basin coal mines of Wyoming, so he understands the importance of fossil fuel freight for the railways. He knows transporting commodities pays the way and passenger service has to be subsidized, but he points to the Amtrak, CDOT, Winter Park partnership that revived the Winter Park Express.
“With that Moffat Tunnel lease, we certainly want to have a seat at the table because it’s in our community, but (we also want) to work with the state and Union Pacific to allow for commuter rail, and, as far as freight goes, certainly we don’t want to have any materials that can jeopardize the headwaters of the Colorado River,” Kutrumbos said.
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