Steamboat Springs Xcel Energy's application for a controversial rail spur from the Union Pacific mainline to the Hayden Station power plant will go before the Routt County Planning Commission tonight. Xcel's application is the only item on the commission's agenda.
The proposed rail line would extend from the east end of the Carpenter Ranch southeast to the coal-fired Hayden Station. A new overpass would be built to take the line across U.S. Highway 40 about 200 yards west of where the highway crosses the Yampa River. Approximately 10,500 feet of rail would be constructed in addition to an at-grade crossing over Routt County Road 27.
Officials with the Nature Conservancy-owned Carpenter Ranch are against the rail spur, saying it will adversely affect the ecosystem there.
"We're opposed to it," said Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa Valley project director for the Nature Conservancy. "I just think it's an inappropriate structure for this location."
But Xcel Energy officials say this is their only option left for the rail spur, which is four years in the making and intended to provide a reliable source of fuel to Hayden Station in the future. Most of the plant's coal is shipped via trucks from Peabody Energy's Twentymile Coal Mine. Xcel's contract with Twentymile ends in 2011, and Xcel officials hope to use the rail spur to deliver coal from other mines to the west.
The rail line would traverse the ranch on an existing right of way controlled by Xcel. The Routt County Board of Commissioners rejected a previous rail line proposal that would have gone across a conservation easement on the Carpenter Ranch. That easement prevents industrial developments. All other options for the rail line would have to go across private property.
"There are no willing property owners," said Mary Brown, an Xcel lobbyist.
Brown said only one train a day, or five trains a week, would travel the rail line. Regardless of the frequency of train traffic, Blakeslee said the spur and its retaining walls would create a dangerous situation that would funnel wildlife such as elk onto U.S. 40. Xcel officials said they will mitigate that concern with a series of bridges that would allow safe travel for wildlife.
Planning Director Chad Phillips said a total of 40 letters were submitted for public comment regarding the rail spur. Phillips said opinions in the letters are mixed, but that most oppose the project.
Despite opposition, the project is likely to keep moving forward toward a hearing with the Routt County Board of Commissioners at 6 p.m. Sept. 24 because of a statute that requires the application be approved or denied within 90 days of its submittal.
Blakeslee said the Nature Conservancy holds out hope for the project to be revisited.
"I just don't know what the county's going to do," he said. "I think they're in a tough spot. This has been going on for a long time."
If the project is approved, construction of the rail line would begin next summer and be completed in 2011.