The Routt County Board of Commissioners should approve Xcel Energy's request to build a rail spur from the east end of the Carpenter Ranch to the Hayden Station power plant.
Xcel's request comes after nearly four years of planning, negotiating and failed attempts to build a rail spur elsewhere. Private landowners have been unwilling to have a train cross their land, and a previous proposal to cross a different section of the Carpenter Ranch was turned away by Routt County Commissioners.
After exhausting numerous other options, Xcel officials ultimately settled on the most logical one - using their existing right of way to build a rail line through the east end of the Carpenter Ranch, over U.S. Highway 40, across Routt County Road 27 and into the Hayden Station.
Xcel says hauling coal to the Hayden Station by rail is needed to ensure a reliable source of fuel for the power plant well into the future. The rail spur should allow 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.
Xcel currently uses trucks to haul coal from Twentymile Coal Mine to the power plant. Those trucks make hundreds of trips daily on Routt County Road 27. Xcel officials say they'd like to get those trucks off public roads.
Nature Conservancy officials have been the most vocal opponents of the rail spur proposal. They argue the rail line will pose safety concerns for wildlife and have an adverse affect on the Carpenter Ranch's ecosystem. They also contend the project may be illegal because of the aesthetic affect it would have on the ranch, which is protected by a conservation easement partially owned by the county. The Nature Conservancy has owned the 900-acre Carpenter Ranch since 1997. Xcel's right of way across the east end of the property has been in place since the early 1960s.
We think Xcel officials have properly sought to mitigate those concerns by proposing measures such as building underpasses for wildlife migration and conducting wildlife surveys. The retaining wall on which the rail line will run will be 6 feet tall at the spur and rise at a 1 1/2 percent grade until it reaches U.S. 40, where it will be 27 feet tall.
On Thursday, the Routt County Planning Commission - over objections from Xcel - recommended that the bridge over U.S. 40 be a trestle bridge that appears rural and historic in style. We support that recommendation.
The Carpenter Ranch is a jewel for the community, but we disagree with Nature Conservancy officials that an 1,800-foot rail line traversing the extreme eastern end of the ranch will have such a negative impact on its ecosystem. The main line of the Union Pacific railroad already crosses through the heart of the ranch, and numerous trains rumble over those tracks daily. A smaller, five-times-a-week train that takes only a few minutes to enter and exit the property can't possibly have the same impact.
While we generally support Xcel's proposal, we urge Routt County commissioners to hold the company to its word. For example, the county should consider a condition that, if the rail spur is approved, Xcel must stop using trucks to haul coal to the Hayden Station. Building a rail line but continuing to use trucks on C.R. 27 would not be in the community's best interest and would contradict what Xcel officials have told the public.
Provided these and other recommended conditions are met, the commissioners should approve the project.