Steamboat Springs Xcel Energy finally has permission to reconstruct an existing rail spur near the Hayden Station power plant. The company has spent the past four years trying to secure a special use permit to allow it to bring coal by rail directly to the plant.
Now that Xcel officials have authorization to proceed with the project, they're not wasting any time moving forward.
Sharon Brady, director of Hayden Station, said a request for proposals on the construction project would be issued immediately. Construction won't begin until next year.
The project involves two railroad overpasses, one to cross U.S. Highway 40 and a second to cross Routt County Road 27. They will be part of a spur needed to deliver coal from mines to the west in Moffat County.
The separated grade crossing over the county road was a sticking point for the county and Xcel Energy.
"That was a difficult negotiation," Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said. "It was really a safety issue. That road is used a lot, and it's a school bus route."
The commissioners approved the final plan nearly seven months ago. However, Xcel officials insisted at the time that they would appeal the county commissioners' insistence on the C.R. 27 overpass to the Public Utilities Commission. The appeal never came to pass.
Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz confirmed Tuesday his company had submitted plans to the PUC that show both overpasses. He agreed with Mitsch Bush that negotiations were at times difficult, but said Xcel looks forward to proceeding.
"We're pleased," Stutz said. "It has been very long for us, but we believe we came to the best solution we could for the company and for the community."
Stutz said Xcel will go ahead with the C.R. 27 overpass in spite of the company's belief that traffic volumes on the road aren't sufficient to require it.
Mitsch Bush pointed out that C.R. 27 previously was used as a haul road by large coal trucks delivering coal to the power plant. The county's interest in Xcel's new railroad proposal was to get heavy truck traffic off the road.
"We did not want to exchange one safety problem for another," Mitsch Bush said.
Stutz said his company also is happy to do away with hauling coal by truck.
"It worked for us, but it wasn't ideal. We use rail at all of our other plants," he said.
This week's issuance of a special use permit by the county brings to a close a long series of public hearings that saw Xcel advance several different alternatives for achieving its goals. Brady said the company's need was straightforward: "We need coal to operate."
The commissioners voted to deny one early proposal.
The reconstructed rail spur - actually the old spur used during construction of the plant - crosses the Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch. The Nature Conservancy took a strong stance in opposition to the new train traffic. Nature Conservancy officials now say they have accepted that it will happen.
Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa River project director for the Nature Conservancy, said he has been in ongoing talks with Xcel representatives, with the next one to take place Monday.
"Talks have been cordial and they are making every effort to include the conditions we asked for," Blakeslee said.
For example, Xcel has agreed to build wildlife corridors through two large retaining walls needed to elevate the railroad tracks as the tracks approach the U.S. 40 overpass. The Nature Conservancy's concern was that in winter, elk that use the bottomland along the Yampa River would encounter the walls and be flushed out onto the highway, Blakeslee said.
Routt County Planning Director Chad Phillips said Xcel has agreed to soften the look of the U.S. 40 overpass with the use of concrete stamped with a texture.
Brady said her company would take the winter to complete engineering work for the reconstruction of the rail spur and hope to begin construction in spring 2009 with coal deliveries to begin at the end of 2011.