FARMINGTON — A railroad that could carry coal from the Four Corners will require cooperation between the Navajo Nation, Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, the city of Farmington and the area's oil and gas industries, according to officials.
During a meeting Thursday, Bill Craven, rail bureau manager of the state Department of Transportation's transit and rail division, briefed many of those players and the public on the possibility of a freight rail that could stretch from Interstate 40 to Farmington.
Craven also discussed the New Mexico State Rail Plan draft, a 223-page document that outlines the state's five-year goal for its railroad program. Among other objectives, the plan prioritizes potential private and public statewide freight and passenger rail projects.
Craven said the rail would likely run from the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry's facility in Thoreau, up the mesa to the NAPI freight terminal and into Farmington. But it's still in its conceptual stages, he said.
"Ten years minimum before any ground gets broken," he said. "That's the best estimate."
But the players are on board.
The Navajo Nation can leverage its funds, but it hasn't yet set them aside, said Peter Deswood, senior economic development specialist for the Navajo Nation. Farmington hasn't yet committed the funds either, said Joe Delmagori, Metropolitan Planning Organization planner. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the railroad company that would likely operate the line, has committed no funds, said Latonya Finch, BNSF regional manager for economic development.
BNSF estimates the rail would cost less than $300 million, said Ray Hagerman, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, an organization dedicated to stimulating the Four Corners economy.
"We need to get in there and clear the way," said Farmington resident Chris Whitney.
NAPI officials are excited, too. NAPI CEO Leonard Scott said the organization wants to build a rail hub to export agriculture nationally and globally. According to project documents, the 50- to 100-acre hub would cost about $21.8 million.
The prospects of the rail, Scott said, "lit up our eyes."
Once rail construction starts, it could be completed in two years, Hagerman said. In the next three to four years, the San Juan Generating Station will shut down more than half its coal-burning stacks. As a result, he said, the area's two coal mines will need new markets.
"The point is you got to get that coal out of here," Hagerman said.
The proposed rail could ship the coal south to other markets, he said. But to justify the BNSF rail, 100 loaded cars need to travel its length back and forth in a day, Hagerman said.
The Four Corners region could ship between 35 and 40 cars in and out in a day, according to current demand. But that excludes coal from the Navajo Nation, NAPI agriculture and oil and gas companies, Hagerman said. If they met the demand, he said, the Four Corners could readily fill 100 cars.
"My goodness, we're going to be well over the number of demand that we need for the area," Hagerman said.