Navajo Nation, San Juan County officials say partnership could make railroad a reality
FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner gathered Feb. 20 in the San Juan College School of Energy to sign a memorandum of understanding to partner for development of a potential freight railroad.
Four Corners Economic Development CEO Arvin Trujillo said the agreement does not commit either the tribe or the county to spending money on the project.
"This is a building block for us to look at what it's going to take and it will be a building block to look at intergovernmental agreements if those are required in order to bring necessary funding to help establish this," he said.
He said there is seed money available to get the effort started.
"This is just the beginning of our efforts to build a partnership between the county and Navajo Nation and then to bring the rest of the Four Corners region into this effort together," Trujillo said.
The signing ceremony drew people from throughout northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado.
Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Councilor Lyndreth Wall said he is looking forward to, as a tribal council, "joining arms to make this successful."
“Railroad has been a high priority discussion for as long as I can remember and long before,” said Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes, who attended the signing ceremony along with other city officials.
Mayes said officials have understood for a long time that not having a railroad was one of the biggest hurdles the region faces as it tries to develop and diversify its economy.
Fortner said he has been skeptical of the railroad proposals in the past because of the price tags. It could cost an estimated $250 million to build. He said no local government would have $100 million to $250 million to build a railroad, and the state is unlikely to provide that type of funding.
A petrochemical manufacturing facility is a $6 billion proposal, but Fortner said the region could be attractive for investors looking for inexpensive and abundant natural gas.
However, the potential of petrochemical manufacturing may make it more attractive. This would allow for a public-private partnership. If the railroad becomes a reality, it will likely be privately-owned.
During a San Juan County Commission meeting on Feb. 18, Trujillo said the proposal for petrochemical manufacturing is based on a model used in Pennsylvania. Natural gas would be turned into pellets that would be shipped out of the area by train to make products like clothing. He said 100 train cars filled with pellets are shipped daily in Pennsylvania.
“The (memorandum of understanding) is a way for all of us to work together on the same page,” he said.
Nez said a railroad could spur economic development opportunities for the Navajo Nation and provide a way to bring inexpensive goods, including produce, into the Four Corners region.
One of the proposed routes for the railroad would be along New Mexico Highway 371. Nez said the Navajo Nation would develop a master plan for that corridor. This plan could include manufacturing facilities.
In addition, the railroad could connect Navajo Agricultural Products Industry to markets throughout the world, Nez said. He said he could envision NAPI becoming one of the largest, if not the largest, producer of organic traditional Native American crops in the southwest or even in the country.
He said the opportunities are endless, but emphasized that there needs to be local input and community members must be a part of the planning process.
"This has been a discussion for many years now," Nez said. "And today is really an official next step to making this project a reality to benefit not just the Navajo people, but all peoples in this region. And I look forward to this continued partnership."
He said the partnership should not just be for rail, but should be a partnership for the overall betterment for all people in the region.
Lizer highlighted the need to diversify the economy, especially in light of the planned closures of coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region.
"We are in danger of losing our middle class," he said.
He emphasized the importance of partnerships.
"The essence of synergy is to value differences, to respect them, to build on strengths and to compensate for weaknesses," he said. "So, anyway, as vice president, I fully support this, and if a rail line gets developed, man, I tell you, more power to us."
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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