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By Debi Brazzale, COLORADO NEWS AGENCY
A measure intended to help RTD expand rail service in the Denver area — ensuring that the mass-transit agency can piggyback on the rights-of-way along defunct rail lines — passed muster with a legislative committee Thursday despite a lawmaker’s misgivings.
“If this is a new use, it could be questionable,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, a member of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, where the measure was heard.
House Bill 1276, said its sponsor, Broomfield Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell, clarifies that a former rail right-of-way sold for the purpose of public passenger rail service?such as RTD’s — won’t revert to the original land owners instead.
“There’s a glitch?a hang-up?with a federal regulator that may or may not recognize the transfer of ownership from the prior owner to RTD,” said Mitchell.
Millions of dollars have been spent by RTD to acquire almost 70 miles of former railroad rights-of -way in anticipation of installing light-rail service. Tourist rail services are not addressed in the measure.
Some of the rights-of-way are federal land grants dating to when railroads first came into being. Federal law says that if the right-of-way is abandoned, it reverts to the federal government. The Colorado Constitution says that these abandoned rights-of-way are a “public highway,” and RTD use would qualify.
State statute, however, does not make such a provision and technically would allow such rights-of-way to return to the property owner.
Renfroe told the panel that his reservations about the bill stem from a similar circumstance in his district. A defunct rail line once used for hauling sugar beets was being eyed by local governments hoping to convert it into a bike path, but the line goes through farmland, and the affected farmers wanted their land back.
“If we’re taking a rail line that was the property of a citizen at one time that was condemned and then taken from them, and now we’re not using it for that original purpose, shouldn’t we go back to that property owner before we put it to a new use?” asked Renfroe. The bill will now go to the full Senate for consideration as early as Monday.