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San Juan County, N.M., moving forward on freight line

County commission approves federal grant application for $2 million
San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer sign a memorandum of understanding to pursue a freight rail line on Feb. 20 at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – San Juan County is moving forward with its plan to design and build a freight railroad line connecting to McKinley County.

The county commission voted last week in favor of applying for a federal grant to help plan a possible railroad connection to the Interstate 40 corridor, south of Farmington.

“I want to applaud our staff for moving forward with this project,” said County Commissioner Jim Crowley during a hearing May 5.

The Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant provides up to $100 million per state for transportation infrastructure projects, with $1 billion available nationwide. The grant is administered through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

San Juan County is applying for $2 million in federal funding. During the hearing, the commission said it is working with a Santa Fe-based lawyer, Germaine Chappelle, to file the grant application. The federal deadline to apply is May 18.

Although there is still no specific proposed path, the line would be intended to carry cargo from San Juan County, south through the Navajo Nation and to the already-established I-40 corridor railroad line.

Last year, the New Mexico Department of Transportation received a grant to improve U.S. Highway 285 from the Texas-New Mexico state line to the Permian Basin region, which has high traffic related to the oil and gas industry. The Colorado Department of Transportation also received a grant in 2019.

San Juan County’s decision to pursue the federal funding comes a couple of months after it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Navajo Nation on Feb. 20. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner signed the document, although the MOU did not commit either entity to spending money.

Both San Juan County and the Navajo Nation had conducted feasibility studies for a freight rail service, but the agreement represented one of the first steps the two government entities took toward collaborating on the goal.

At the time of the signing, Fortner said increasing transportation options for moving cargo out of the area could help to diversify the local economy and move toward a more diverse economy.

Both the tribal leaders and county officials said they are hopeful a freight railroad line – which could move goods to market – would help attract new manufacturing companies into the region.

In addition to creating economic growth in the Navajo Nation, tribal leaders said a rail line could bring increased produce and products into the area.

lweber@durangoherald.com

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