An Animas River Trail railroad crossing at 36th Street in north Durango would be safe, despite concerns from longtime residents, an administrative law judge with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission found this week.
Durango Parks and Recreation Department received preliminary approval from PUC administrative law judge Robert Garvey to build the Animas River Trail northern extension across the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks at the end of 36th Street, a crossing at a dead-end road.
Any change to a rail crossing in Colorado must be approved by the PUC. Garvey’s recommended decision is not final; it must be accepted by the PUC. Parties may ask to amend, modify, annul or reverse basic findings of fact within the recommended decision before a final order is rendered.
Durango Parks and Recreation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Isabelle “Marty” Schuller, who challenged the city’s application, also did not immediately respond for comment.
Durango Parks and Recreation applied for an upgrade to the crossing with the PUC in November. Schuller, who lives near the proposed crossing at the southwest corner of 36th and Silverton streets, brought her concern that the railroad crossing isn’t safe to the PUC in December.
Schuller represented herself throughout the legal proceedings, arguing that “the proposed crossing modification fails to provide a clear sight distance,” according to the PUC recommended decision.
Garvey traveled from Denver to Durango at the beginning of May to hear evidence from Schuller, the city and the D&SNG about the safety of the crossing and whether its design meets state standards. He also wrote the recommended decision to the Public Utility Commission.
“A review of the testimony and exhibits in this proceeding shows that the sight distance issues discussed by (Schuller) should not be an issue for users of the new pathway as they will either be facing towards an approaching train as they approach the crossing, or they will be walking/cycling alongside the approaching trail as they approach the crossing, and should be able to easily see and hear the train approaching the crossing,” Garvey wrote.
Garvey acknowledged in his recommended decision that drivers approaching the intersection from the west may be impaired by vegetation and a fence and suggested the D&SNG and the city “work with the property owner on the northwest corner of the 36th Street crossing to make the necessary changes to the fencing, shrubs and trees either to shorten or remove, as necessary, to provide adequate sight distance for eastbound drivers looking north at the 36th Street crossing.”
Garvey wrote that the city’s witnesses provided “credible” testimony as to the reasons for the crossing, including “the need to move lift stations, pump stations, power lines and underground high-voltage utilities and the requirement to displace mobile home residents.”
“Much of the opposition is claimed to come from a perceived danger that the proposed changes at the crossing will create. Yet at the same time, those in opposition to the proposed change went to great lengths to suggest that the current crossing is dangerous,” Garvey wrote. “There is, however, no evidence of any accidents at the crossing. Without question, the removal of trees will improve sight lines. This can only improve the safety of the crossing.”
Garvey wrote that “the only real argument that makes sense” was Schuller’s concern about trespassing on her property with an increase of traffic.
“The opposition to the proposed crossing is in fact opposition to the trail going through the neighborhood and potentially people coming into the neighborhood,” Garvey wrote. “While the undersigned (administrative law judge) is sensitive to the concerns of (Schuller) and her neighbors, those concerns do not go to the issue of safety at the crossing and, by itself, is not justification to deny the application.”