Colorado officials reshuffle Moffat Tunnel lease team as passenger rail push accelerates
The state of Colorado has switched tracks on its Moffat Tunnel lease renegotiation, with the Colorado Department of Transportation taking the reins from the state’s Department of Local Affairs as the lead agency redoing the long-term deal that allows rail giant Union Pacific to use the state-owned tunnel.
As first reported by Colorado Newsline in July, Union Pacific’s 99-year lease to use the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel for $12,000 a year expires Jan. 6, 2025. Opponents of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway oil-train project in Utah, which could result in a massive increase in hazardous shipments traveling through Colorado, are urging the state to use the expiring lease as leverage, although an Eagle County legal victory in August succeeded in derailing that project, at least temporarily.
The state is now actively working with Union Pacific to increase passenger rail to replace waning freight traffic for commodities such as coal and oil — specifically commuter rail to help ease workforce housing shortages around Colorado. A recent Union Pacific tour of the rail line between Craig and Steamboat Springs included local elected officials, state lawmakers and CDOT officials, and there appears to be growing momentum for both commuter and tourist-oriented passenger rail, with several mountain towns and counties pushing for people over petroleum on local rail lines.
And now the state is shifting its Moffat Tunnel lease renegotiation team to CDOT, with a former U.S. Department of Transportation attorney taking the lead.
“The Moffat Tunnel lease renegotiation is no longer being led by DOLA,” DOLA spokesperson Chynna Cowart emailed Colorado Newsline. “DOLA, CDOT, and (the Department of Personnel & Administration)’s Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit comprise the Moffat Tunnel Working Group. John Putnam, former Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) Environmental Programs Director and General Counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation, has joined CDOT and will be leading negotiations at the appointment of (Gov. Jared Polis), with support from DOLA, DPA, and CDOT’s teams.”
DOLA’s Kate McIntire, a regional manager for the state agency and a former Grand County manager, had been leading the Moffat Tunnel lease renegotiation efforts.
CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson clarified that his agency’s role in the negotiations “is to provide technical and subject-matter expertise in both railroad network and system planning, particularly relating to passenger rail, and engineering support and expertise in tunnel infrastructure. Considerations for preserving capacity on the route for passenger rail are part of the key objectives identified by the (Moffat Tunnel Working Group) as approved by the governor’s office.”
Doug Platt, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Personnel & Administration’s P3 Office, sent this email: “The P3 office is not sure what role, if any, it will play. It is simply involved in early and ongoing discussions at this point.”
In Eagle County, the P3 Office is working to transition a CDOT parcel to workforce housing. It’s unclear how that mission of putting workforce housing on underutilized state-owned parcels of land might dovetail with rail projects, but transportation is seen as key in resort areas.
While discussions are preliminary, it’s possible Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line — which travels through the tunnel at Winter Park and passes through Bond in Eagle County, where a spur heads northwest to Steamboat and Craig — could see a service extension of the popular Winter Park Express ski train. That line is a partnership between Winter Park, Amtrak and CDOT.
“Winter Park has been in discussions with the governor’s office and CDOT regarding the Winter Park Express and expanded service to our platform,” Winter Park Mayor Nick Kutrumbos confirmed in an email. In a previous interview, Kutrumbos emphasized the need to increase passenger rail in order get cars off the U.S. 40 and Interstate 70 bottleneck and provide alternative transportation to Winter Park, which is owned by Denver and managed by Alterra.
That possible rail expansion to Steamboat could put two Alterra ski resorts on ski-train routes.
“Steamboat is in the discovery phase of what is possible in regards to passenger rail in Northwest Colorado,” Steamboat Ski Resort spokesperson Maren Franciosi wrote in an email. “We see the benefits of rail as part of a broader transportation system solution for our region, a way to build strong and connected communities with expanded affordable housing options, and/or a new experience/transportation option for guests visiting Northwest Colorado.”
State Rep. Meghan Lukens, a teacher in Steamboat Springs and the representative for Routt and Eagle counties, participated in the recent rail tour and is a big proponent of taking vehicle traffic off U.S. 40 with a commuter and tourist train push dubbed “Operation All Aboard.”
“It would be amazing to connect the rail through Soroco (South Routt County), and I think that very well could be a possibility in the future,” Lukens emailed. “For now, the focus is between Steamboat, Hayden, and Craig because that is where we currently have the largest amount of workforce commuters. Furthermore, the rail is primarily used by the Hayden and Craig coal plants, which are in the process of shutting down by 2030. It’s important we capitalize on this opportunity to transition … into passenger rail as we also navigate the coal transition.”
Routt County Commissioner Sonja Macys envisions a rail system that supports both ski and summer tourists as well as vital workers who live in less-expensive communities downline from the resort.
“It sort of has to be both based on the information that we’re getting from the people who are ultimately going to make this happen,” Macys said in an interview. “We have a really robust local coalition called the Innovative Transportation Task Force, and we’ve been looking at all different kinds of issues for a long time, including this one. And one of the things that is attractive to the governor’s office and CDOT about us is that … we have a local, ground-up-driven coalition of groups, and I mean local governments, ski area, our airport, we’re all working together towards the same goal.”
Tennessee Pass Line revival
There is an existing rail spur to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Hayden, which makes for an attractive planes-to-trains connection, proponents say.
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat who was raised in Steamboat but now lives near the dormant Union Pacific Tennessee Pass Line railroad tracks in Avon, also participated in the tour and authored, along with Lukens, a letter to the governor supporting the northwest commuter tourist line. Asked whether he would support a similar line in Eagle County — from Dotsero to Leadville — Roberts said he would.
“Our understanding of where CDOT sees opportunity for using federal infrastructure dollars most effectively at the moment is connecting Winter Park to Steamboat/Hayden/Craig via State Bridge/Bond and then go north through Yampa and Oak Creek,” Roberts wrote in an email. “That is the reason why our letter was confined to that project. I, of course, would support passenger rail through Eagle County to Leadville as well, but it would likely be a completely separate project, is my understanding.”
CDOT’s Wilson confirmed there is state interest in reviving the Tennessee Pass Line, which connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero and travels along the Eagle River through Gypsum (near the Eagle County Regional Airport), Eagle, Avon (where a gondola connects to Beaver Creek) and Minturn (off the back side of Vail) before heading over Tennessee Pass (Ski Cooper) to Leadville, where many Summit and Eagle County resort workers live.
“We remain interested in the Tennessee Pass Line, and have identified it as a recommended corridor for consideration of future passenger rail service, although this identification will be in the 2023 Rail Plan update (and a vision white paper) that haven’t been published yet …,” Wilson wrote in an email. “The lease of the Moffat Tunnel likely has no impact on the potential for the UP or other partners to re-open the Tennessee Pass subdivision, but may be a component of the negotiations as we look forward.”
Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr says the state needs to reach out soon regarding the Moffat Tunnel lease and any future plans for the Tennessee Pass Line.
“I personally believe that anything that is not now is not soon enough,” Scherr emailed. “And since Eagle County is not currently part of or aware of any actual progress, an acceptable stakeholder process is not happening. DOLA should understand we are not just constituents, we are stakeholders with specific interests who they need to engage and communicate with. And time is of the essence.”