As San Juan County looks for ways to diversify its economy, rail remains a priority
FARMINGTON — Discussions about economic diversification in San Juan County have for years focused on the need for infrastructure to transport products out of the area.
This prompted the New Mexico House of Representatives to request several state departments to study two possible solutions — a railroad or a heavy haul road.
Legislators learned more about this study on Nov. 12 during the Legislature's interim Economic and Rural Development Committee meeting in Santa Fe, which can be viewed online at nmlegis.gov.
"We're not going to have large development without addressing this issue," said New Mexico Economic Development Department General Counsel David Matthews. "It's an impediment to both the region and the state."
No funding for study yet
Matthews said the study group that formed following the passage of House Memorial 56 has not arrived at any definite conclusions, despite House Memorial 56 requesting a report be provided this month.
"Lack of an appropriation is an impediment to this study group," he said.
While three state departments were asked to create the report, the Legislature did not allocate funding for it. Matthews asked for $500,000.
Matthews highlighted road trains in Australia, which is one semi-tractor hauling a long line of trailers. Road trains are not currently allowed in New Mexico, but Matthews said the state could designate a heavy haul road as an exception to that rule.
The road would likely be less expensive to build than a railroad and could be completed faster, Matthews said. It would only be used by trucks, which proponents say would reduce the impact heavy truck traffic has to road conditions on highways like U.S. Highway 550.
Updated report, route options
This is not the first time the state has studied building rail in San Juan County. In 2014 the Legislature allocated $300,000 to the Economic Development Department to study building rail from Farmington to Thoreau, which resulted in a 113-page report that was later updated by Four Corners Economic Development in 2018.
The route to Thoreau would be challenging, both Matthews and Montoya said. Montoya highlighted the checkerboard of land ownership as well as a bridge that would have to be built.
Matthews said it may be more feasible to build a railroad or a heavy haul road along U.S. Highway 491 from the Shiprock area to Gallup.
He said if the state is interested in that route the Legislature and the executive branch should reach out to the Navajo Nation. He also suggested the Legislature and executive branch contact Utah and Colorado about partnering on the endeavor.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, was one of the sponsors on the House Memorial. He said the biggest beneficiary of a railroad will likely be Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, leading him to suggest examining a route from New Mexico Highway 371 to Burnham and then from Burnham down to Gallup.
Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, also highlighted agriculture in southern Colorado as a potential beneficiary of the railroad or heavy haul road.
However, Sharer said agriculture is seasonal and does not need a railroad year round. He said that could make it difficult to get a railroad built.
"That brings us to this kind of chicken and egg problem we have," Sharer said.
He said manufacturing does not want to locate in San Juan County because there is no railroad. Sharer suggested partnering with private partners that may want to build a petrochemical plant and working with them to create a railroad.
Montoya also suggested that private partners could help offset some of the costs of building a railroad.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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