Dan Schwartz | The Daily Times (Farmington, N.M.)
FARMINGTON — Many participants at a Thursday planning session hosted by the New Mexico Department of Transportation here agreed that a railroad is needed from Thoreau to the Four Corners to transport goods that support oil drilling, agriculture and other industries.
“If we don’t have that infrastructure,” said Ray Hagerman, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, “we’re not going to get those volumes” in energy production.
About 30 officials from the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, San Juan County, Farmington, Bloomfield, Aztec, energy companies, banks, manufacturing businesses and other economy-driving groups met at the Farmington Civic Center to give input on the statewide plan.
The railroad wasn’t the only issue discussed. Officials also said highway maintenance will be more important if San Juan Basin energy development drives more freight trucks into the region, and the traffic already disturbs some communities. The region’s air freight, they said, is also limited.
The plan guides the department of transportation’s decision-making. It will attempt to improve statewide road congestion, transportation safety, environmental impacts and large-project lag times, among other goals, and it also helps the state get federal grants.
The plan identifies themes, said Claude Morelli, a department of transportation project manager, not so much specific projects.
The document plans currently extend into 2040, and they are updated about every four years.
Transportation department officials have been meeting with other communities and ad-hoc working groups throughout the state.
The last time a railroad reached into the Four Corners was 1968, a department of transportation official said in the meeting, and it’s clear the community wants another rail.
The railroad from Thoreau could connect the Four Corners to the transcontinental rail, which spans east and west through most of the country. But it’s estimated to cost about $300 million.
Navajo Nation officials have said they plan to have a railhead in Thoreau — which could connect the railroad to the transcontinental rail — operational by 2015.
The department of transportation is studying the possibility of laying the railroad along state Highway 371, but it would cross through tribal, state and federal lands.
The rail will likely need to be privately funded, many officials have said.
In an interview after the meeting, Hagerman said four companies have told the Navajo Nation and Four Corners Economic Development they would pay to build and operate the railroad. These companies, he said, could finance the entire line.
He declined to identify the four companies but said building the line has become competitive.
“It’s definitely more hopeful,” he said, “but the issues are going to be (whether) those rights-of-way can be acquired” on the Navajo Nation.
During the meeting, officials broke into groups tasked to answer two questions: What are the region’s most important freight issues, and what are strategies to address these issues?
“Do you see a benefit to rail?” Farmington Community Development Director Mary Holton asked her group.
Buddy Benally, a NAPI consultant, said yes. Rail could ship more than 40 percent of the farm’s crops, pushing about 700 cars through the planned Thoreau railhead a year, he said. “And that’s just the farm,” he said.
Pat Williams, a Halliburton Energy Services manger, said rail will be critical as oil and gas production increases and fracking sand is needed by the truck-load.
Matt Ryan, Raytheon Missile Systems Din Facility plant manager, said he needs a better way to move his employees, many of whom are experts who have to drive and fly long distances. They need to be imported and exported often as quickly as his products, he said. He said his plant manufactures small electronics.
Williams said the rail would also decrease freight-truck traffic on the highways, where people already die. In August, four people were killed in a crash on U.S. Highway 550. Williams referenced that crash.
“We won’t catch up. But if we don’t do anything,” he said, “we’ve got a whole lot of problems.”
When the groups finished brainstorming and gathered back together, the officials presented their findings on colored cards they’d taken notes on.
One group had focused primarily on the rail. Holton’s group had talked about that, but improving highways is also important, they decided.
One woman, speaking for her group, pasted a green card to one of three white poster boards at the front of the room. The card said “Rail,” and it was punctuated with an exclamation mark.
“There’s a theme at this meeting,” Morelli said.