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Uintah Basin to Rifle, CO


Studies to begin for possible Utah, Colorado rail line.



The first of several studies needed to determine whether a 100-mile rail line from Rangely to Rifle is possible will get under way soon. A Salt Lake City company was recently selected to conduct a basic engineering and cost estimate for the $300 million project.

Utah's economic development department has proposed the new rail line, called the Isolated Empire Rail Project, to bring phosphate and its byproducts from eastern Utah to world markets. Universal Chemical and Mineral Corp. of Chicago plans to mine phosphate ore and manufacture dicalcium phosphate, a mineral supplement used in animal feed, along with phosphoric acid, used in fertilizer, and gypsum fiberboard. The plan would create up to 750 new jobs.

DMJMHarris Consultants was chosen from among 10 firms, said Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado Director Jim Evans. Along with engineering and cost estimates of five possible rail-line routes, other studies will include marketing, socioeconomic and environmental impacts, he said.

"We feel we need to support these studies to get all the facts on the table," Evans said. He also called the rail line "the possible answer to the economic future of Rangely." The area's main economic base, the Rangely oil field, is in declining production.

"This couldn't have come at a better time for that area," Evans said.

He said the main concern of associated governments members, which include officials from Garfield, Mesa, Rio Blanco, Routt and Moffat counties, is to "make sure we have a true joint effort with Utah."

Jeff Devere, Rio Blanco County planning director, said the question is whether or not the rail line goes north or south from the Deseret Western Railroad that runs 35 miles between the Deserado mine near Rangely and the Bonanza, Utah, area.

"If the feasibility of such a rail line is being explored, we want to be involved and know what's going on," Devere said, "and we are. But until we have detailed and useful information, we can't take more than a wait-and-see attitude. But we are interested."

That thought was echoed by Garfield County Commissioner Larry McCown, who chairs the associated governments group.

"Building a rail line itself may not mean economic development for Colorado," McCown said. The rail line might go north to Moffat County, he said, "so we don't know what's in it for us."

Devere said the studies will include more public involvement and comment after the first of the year, when a steering committee may also be formed. An environmental impact statement will also be needed.

The proposed railroad would be privately maintained. Construction will not begin until near the end of next year and take 24 months to complete.

By MIKE McKIBBIN The Daily Sentinel

Several northwestern Colorado counties are vying for a railroad line planned to run from Uintah County, UT to Rifle, CO. The 100 to 170-mile "Isolated Empire Railroad" project is being designed primarily to transport phosphate.

Backers are planning a four-phase feasibility study to help select the route, whether it is through Meeker, Craig or Wyoming. They have asked Colorado government representatives, primarily from the northwestern region, to form a panel to offer feedback.

The project is referred to a the "Isolated Empire Railroad" because it would link a 25,000-square-mile area in northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah to the nationwide rail infrastructure.

Thanks to Larry W. Grant.

A proposed 135-mile short line railroad that could link Vernal, Utah to Rifle inched closer to reality last week, but Carey Wold, a development consultant for the project, said there is still a lot of work to be done before construction can even be considered.

The group of western Colorado and eastern Utah economic development directors netted $1,000,000 in federal Transportation and Community Systems Preservation grant money in April and last week awarded a $50,000 contract for a rail alignment study to Michael Kenyon and Associates of Denver last week.

The rail alignment study is expected to be complete in 60 to 90 days, and additional studies including a commercial market and freight study, a regional impact study, and a "fatal flaw" study - an environmental impact study pre-cursor- could begin this summer.

The proposed railroad would connect the natural resource rich areas near Vernal, Utah, and Rangely, Colorado - known as the "Isolated Empire" because of their lack of transportation options - to major transportation corridors.

The line would begin near the Deseret Generation and Transmission coal fired power plant in Bonanza, Utah. The DG&T already operates a short line electrical railroad, the Deseret Western Railway. The 35-miles of track connects a coal mine north of Rangely, CO to the power plant and would likely be used in any proposed rail project. The new line would likely use diesel locomotives.

Several route alternatives are being considered including a northeasterly route from Vernal connecting to the Union Pacific railroad in Wyoming, an easterly route to Wyoming via Craig, and a route that would head east, then south through the Piceance Creek Basin and connect to the Union Pacific rail line west of Rifle.

But those close to the Isolated Empire Rail project say that connecting to the Union Pacific line that runs through Rifle is preferable for many reasons.

"The study will look at what would be involved to go to Wyoming and what would be involved to go to Craig, Colorado, but both of those have been more or less set aside simply because they won't work," said Dan Kuhn, a Rail Planner with the Utah Department of Transportation. "Going to Wyoming or Craig will only connect to one railroad line, which will negate the competitiveness of the project. The preferred alternative is to connect to the Rifle area or somewhere along that route."

But he said no alternative is being ruled out at this point.

"My basic preliminary work made me think that going the Piceance route was not feasible, but a lot of people in Meeker suggested we should take a look at that, so we are taking a serious look at it. If people have other ideas, we would love to hear them," said Kuhn. "There are a lot of ways that the railroad can be routed from Rangely to Rifle."

Union Pacific owns and operates the major rail line north in Wyoming and through Craig. While Union Pacific owns the line that parallels Interstate-70 through Rifle, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe also uses the line.

That fact alone makes the route south much more appealing, said Kuhn.

"The key, if you are going to build a railroad and you are trying to facilitate economic stability in a region- which is why this railroad is being considered, to make it possible to have stable industry and jobs in northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah- you don't want to be locked into just one railroad, because then you are captive to whatever rate they want to charge you and that could end up negating the building of the railroad," Kuhn explained.

Having just returned from a series of rail conferences in New York City, Kuhn, Wold and project leader Russ Fotheringham, heard tails of shippers forced to pay higher rates on single line railroads. One example, said Kuhn, showed a Texas based business paying 26 percent higher shipping rates due to lack of competition.

"When building a railroad, if it is a one commodity railroad, it is not as critical an issue. If you are shipping in and shipping out material of various types all over the country, at that point, you want to have access to both of the major rail lines," he added.

One of the driving factors behind the proposed rail line is the Universal Chemical and Mineral Corporation's interest in a large phosphate deposit near Vernal. A total of four companies, including UC&MC, have committed to investing a combined $200 million to mine the material if a rail line were installed to transport the material. The phosphate mine, plant and associated industries are projected to create 2,000 jobs in an area that consistently ranks at the bottom of the economic barrel.

The state and local project team involved in studying the proposed rail line recently traveled to Washington, DC to meet with both railroad and elected officials to brief them on the project.

"Their attitude was one of great interest," explained Carey Wold, a development consultant for the Isolated Empire Rail project. "Lets put it this way, they are more aware and supportive of the benefits this project will bring to our region."

Construction of the line is estimated at $3 million per mile, and the entire construction costs for the rail line hover at the $300 million mark.

A rail planning meeting held in Meeker in February drew the ire of several ranchers who did not want the line crossing their property, and raised issues of property values, how and where ranchers and their sheep could cross to get to grazing areas, and wildlife impacts.

The group is applying for an additional $665,000 in federal grant money for planning and feasibility studies. Word on that funding is expected soon.

Wold said the extra money is necessary.

"A lot of the funding is needed for things like the environmental assessment. That is a big ticket item," he explained. "From our look around at similar projects, because this project is associated with potential river crossings, we were told there will be a big price tag on that. The management of natural resources is extremely critical."

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Last Update 01/28/01

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