As Yampa Valley ponders possibilities of regional transportation authority, Eagle County’s vision is dominated by buses

Routt commissioners cast doubt on potential for passenger rail between Craig and Steamboat

A regional transportation authority is being studied locally by a joint Routt County, Steamboat Springs and Craig effort.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

Talk about what a future regional transportation authority in the Yampa Valley could look like often includes big ideas like repurposing railways used for coal or a gondola connecting Steamboat to the base of Steamboat Ski Resort.

Routt County, Steamboat and Craig are studying what a regional transportation authority could look like, and how it could be funded. But in Eagle County, where a ballot question before voters would create a new regional transportation authority and fund it with a half-cent sales tax, the system would largely rely on buses.

At a joint meeting with Routt County Commissioners on Monday, Oct. 24, in Yampa, Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said the ballot measure has broad support, especially from Vail Valley businesses.

“It was the business community saying we are having a tremendously hard time getting our employees here,” McQueeney said. “We have to have more efficient bus service. It has to run more often. It has to run later. It has to do all these things.”

The proposed measure would increase routes, include free fare zones within Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek, and add a free bus line between Eagle and Gypsum. The measure also prioritizes electrifying the fleet of buses that would run these lines.

Still, Eagle County commissioners said the plan wasn’t thoroughly developed and was put together rather quickly to get it on the ballot, something businesses had been asking for since before the pandemic, McQueeney said. 

“It hasn’t passed yet, but it has tremendous support from our businesses,” McQueeney said.

Eagle County’s proposed RTA isn’t all about buses, though. McQueeney said it could fund guaranteed revenues for airlines at the Eagle County Regional Airport to entice more service and could help fund a new interchange on Interstate 70 that has been considered a “shovel-ready project” for about a decade.

Feasibility of railway repurposing

The study being conducted by Routt County, Steamboat and Craig could provide answers for the feasibility of various transportation options like repurposing current railways that connect mines in South Routt to power plants to the west with a passenger train. On Monday, Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan casted doubt on the possibility of a passenger rail.

“Seems unlikely given the cost,” Corrigan said.

McQueeney said some people in Eagle County hope to someday revive rails for passenger use that extend all the way to Salida, which could be beneficial for transportation and for recreational use, but that is not part of the proposed RTA.

In addition to the incredibly high cost of such a project, Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said they have another problem.

“Turns out a whole lot of rich people built their houses right next to what seemed to be an abandoned rail line,” Scherr said.

Routt Commissioner Beth Melton said that “In theory, it is a great idea,” but the logistics around passenger rail seem daunting. Melton said Routt County staff did reach out to Union Pacific Railroad as part of the master planning process to discuss the potential for a passenger rail from Steamboat to Craig.

Both Melton and Corrigan recalled Steamboat Transit Director Jonathan Flint telling them he could pay for 100 buses for 100 years with the money it would take to get rail between Steamboat and Craig up and running.

“It’s just a huge dollar amount,” Corrigan said. “So we don’t think it’s feasible.”

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