Our View: Xcel can find a better route

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The Routt County Planning Commission was right to recommend rejection of Xcel Energy's permit for a rail spur to haul coal across part of the Carpenter Ranch.

Xcel argued its plan is the best of nearly a dozen options for establishing a new route for getting coal to the Hayden Power Station. But planning commissioners weren't convinced. Neither are we.

Xcel can still pursue the permit, but surely the Board of County Commissioners will support the Planning Commission's unanimous recommendation.

Rather, we hope Xcel withdraws the application and begins work anew on finding an alternative that has broader support from landowners and is less disruptive of the landscape, even if it proves to be more expensive. As attorney Reed Zars noted, though this project will cost tens of millions of dollars, the financial effect on Xcel's customers of one option versus another will be minimal.

Xcel's effort to connect the power station to Union Pacific's main line on the other side of U.S. Highway 40 and the Yampa River is no small matter. Currently, the power station receives most of its coal from the Seneca mine, which is closing at the end of the year. The rest of the plant's coal comes by truck from Twentymile Coal Co. Peabody Coal owns both Twentymile and Seneca.

New rail access will stabilize the future of the Hayden Power Plant, allowing Xcel to use competing coal suppliers and thus lower costs. Such competitive pricing benefits not only Xcel, but also electricity consumers in the Yampa Valley.

We think Xcel can find a better way to create rail access than the option presented Thursday. Option 2A, as it is called, involves building a wye and spur from the main rail line near where U.S. 40 crosses the Yampa. The spur would run through an irrigated hay meadow on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch as well as through properties owned by Tim Nelson and Rosamond Garcia. An underpass to cross U.S. 40 would have to be built.

Critics noted the plan would disrupt the conservation easement Routt County purchased with the Yampa Valley Land Trust. Granting the permit, attorney Sally Claassen said, would break the promise the county made to protect the Carpenter Ranch from development.

The simplest approach for Xcel could be to pursue Option 2, using a decades-old rail spur that runs parallel to the Yampa River and crosses U.S. 40 just west of the river. The rail spur would have to be rebuilt, but Xcel already owns the right of way. Unfortunately, this option would pose significant traffic concerns on U.S. 40 because it would feature two rail crossings in close proximity and because trains from the east would have to pass the spur and back into the power plant.

Planning commissioners advised Xcel to look more closely at Option 1D, which involves building a rail spur along the highway and crossing the Yampa near the same point the highway does. This option requires construction in the Yampa River bed, and trains from the west would have to pass the spur and back into the plant.

We previously advised Xcel to look long and hard at using existing infrastructure to the west of the power plant -- the Hayden Gulch rail spur and a connecting coal haul road. Xcel says that is a short-term option, but that it would be cost prohibitive long term, too disruptive of Routt County Road 37 and could interfere with anticipated growth for Hayden.

The truth is there is not a simple solution. But we think the Planning Commission was right to reject Option 2A. Before Xcel is allowed to tear apart land that taxpayers have paid to preserve, it should be clear that all other options have been exhausted.

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