"We could use rail in the worst way," said Ray Hagerman, the new chief executive of Four Corners Economic Development.
Local industries could potentially export coal, natural gas and other products by rail, Hagerman said.
For the moment, the only rail in San Juan County is a short railway that brings coal from Navajo Mine to Four Corners Power Plant. Decades ago, rail linked Farmington and Durango, Colo., but that line was abandoned in the 1960s.
Hagerman said it's unclear when commercial rail could be brought to the area.
"It's really hard to say," Hagerman said in an interview with The Daily Times' editorial board. "The business proposition has to be there from the carrier's perspective."
Rail has certain advantages over trucking to get products to market, Hagerman said.
"Rail is substantially less expensive overall and it does less damage to your roads," he said.
Planned partial shutdowns at San Juan County's two coal-fired power plants has renewed interest in rail. Without an export market, the coal mines attached to each power plant will see reduced demand.
"They know they've got to get that product out of San Juan County and on a rail system," said Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts.
The closest commercial rail link is at Thoreau, about 100 miles south of Farmington, a location that Roberts said could make a natural rail spur to San Juan County.
"There have been some renewed discussions about rail, but I would say they're in the very preliminary stages," Roberts said.
A survey initiated by San Juan Economic Development Service, the predecessor to Four Corners Economic Development, found "mixed" interest in rail several years ago, Roberts said.
Any rail link would likely require the support of the Navajo Nation, whose land a Thoreau-Farmington rail line would pass through. A spokesman for President Ben Shelly could not be reached for comment Monday.
Hagerman said he sees other business opportunities that could bring economic benefits to the area. Navajo Agricultural Products Industry's production of crops could be parlayed into food processing, he said.
"We could be feeding a lot of people regionally," he said.
The Farmington area could also become a hotbed for electronics assembly. Raytheon's facility on the Navajo Nation south of Farmington is one example. The area may look to attract manufacturing related to drones and defense contracts.
"Why can't we be part of that growing industry?" Hagerman said.