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Our View: Train troubles

In April, we wrote an editorial about the controversy involving the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the residents of the Rockwood area north of Durango, from which the railroad began departures last year during COVID-19 – and this year had continued to use for roundtrips on what D&SNG calls the Cascade Canyon Express.

When it became clear the railroad intended to continue using the Rockwood station throughout the 2021 summer season, residents complained to the county about resulting issues, such as increased traffic on narrow, winding, shoulder-less County Road 200; increased fire danger; problems with ingress and egress for residents, ambulances and fire trucks; and more. Residents took their troubles to the La Plata County Commission.

Perhaps naively, we had hoped the railroad, county and residents would be able to work out a compromise of some sort that would allow the train to run a limited number of trips and take actions to mitigate some of the other issues.

Instead, the situation has escalated. The county issued a list of what it considers violations of its new land-use code, passed last October; the railroad responded that the county has no jurisdiction over it. Nevertheless, for the time being, the railroad has halted its roundtrips from Rockwood.

We recognize the train’s historic significance and economic impact on Durango, and we also recognize the significant impacts of cars carrying 280 to 600 people driving into sleepy Rockwood to catch the train three to five times a day. We believe railroad management has taken significant steps to resolve some of the issues, such as trash and on-road parking, though we remain concerned about fire prevention. In any case, actions by D&SNG haven’t satisfied area residents or the county.

Train management argues that the train has a historic right to use the Rockwood station. The other argument made by D&SNG owner Al Harper is that, “The county wants to say it has control of what the railroad can do on its tracks and in its stations. I can’t have the government sitting here and telling me what I can and cannot do.”

Yet the government does have the right to regulate utilities and does, certainly through state and federal laws and the regulatory agencies that enforce those laws and write regulations, largely in service to public safety. Whether the county can regulate the railroad through its land-use code is less certain at this point.

The railroad has asked the state District Court for an injunction to prevent the county from enforcing the land-use code against the railroad; Judge Suzanne Carlson will consider that request. Meanwhile, the County Commission has given the go-ahead for County Attorney Sheryl Rogers to ask the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the federal Surface Transportation Board just who has what jurisdiction.

The argument of historic precedent doesn’t entirely ring true. Land-use codes evolve over time, and public utilities including railroads have to adapt, as does everyone. Many neighborhoods nationwide were built long after airports, and yet airlines and airports have had to adapt to the needs and demands of the humans who now reside around them. Noise abatement and environmental initiatives are often included in voluntary and legislated mitigation efforts.

Working directly with the county and residents to reach compromise is the efficient way to go. That process already exists. It’s called a “location and extent review,” a statutory process outlined in the land-use code that would allow all parties, including the public, to have their say. The county would issue decisions that ultimately could land in the laps of – guess who? – the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, should the railroad want to challenge them.

The train may be the engine that drives some of our economy, but the company should remember it depends on the region’s residents as much as tourism for its continued success and vaunted status – and take the leap of continuing to act in good faith by participating in the review process. Doing so could go a long way toward sustaining relationships – as well as keeping that whistle blowing.

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