Here are some words you don't hear from the Army very often: "We made a mistake."
But that's what the Fort Carson garrison commander is saying about the Army's failure to communicate with Stratmoor Hills residents — for five years — as it planned a second rail line on the east side of the 600-home community bordering B Street, adjacent to Fort Carson's north side.
"We made a mistake in communications, and we're working with the community to fix that with this [environmental assessment]," Col. Robert McLaughlin says. "Their voice will definitely be heard."
But residents are wary after having the $14 million project sprung on them at a public meeting April 7.
At issue is a 6,700-foot rail spur to be built from the post to Crestridge Avenue. Carson officials say the extra track will allow more train cars to be loaded at one time, so that a brigade can be moved off post within 72 hours — rather than the 109 hours it takes now — to training or deployment. Cars out of Carson hook up with tracks through Colorado Springs, and roughly 600 rail cars are needed to move a brigade, with its tanks and other equipment.
Although McLaughlin says the project isn't a done deal, Carson officials told neighbors at the April 7 meeting at Stratmoor Hills Elementary that construction would begin in August, according to Ralph Huber, a longtime Stratmoor Hills resident who attended. The project, fully funded by Congress, calls for a second set of tracks to parallel B Street, and a pedestrian overpass to span Loomis Avenue, the tracks and B Street next to the elementary school. Now, students walk across the tracks to get to school.
Huber, a 22-year Army vet, generally gives the post high marks as a neighbor, but this latest episode makes him mad.
"The attitude I came away from the meeting with was, they don't give a damn," he says. "They didn't have a valid excuse for not telling the neighbors for five years."
The meeting got a little dicey, Huber says, when many of the 70 residents there objected to Carson's plan to idle the rail cars on the spur for a week at a time. Now, though, Carson spokeswoman Dee McNutt tells the Independent that the Army expects to park cars for only 24 hours at a time, and only during "physical rail operations."
McLaughlin says the rail will double the number of cars coming into Fort Carson. He adds that an environmental assessment will be issued soon for public comment.
"The community clearly has a say," he says. "We are very conscious of how it interferes with any kind of emergency traffic. The quicker we're in and out [of the post], the better for everybody."
But Jim Fisk, who owns three homes in Stratmoor Hills, says people worry the spur's very existence will hurt property values. Plus, he used to work at Carson's railyard and maintains it has ample rails, especially given that documents show plans for five more miles of track with the spur project. Finally, he's not buying the 24-hour claim.
"I worked there for 18 years. I don't trust 'em," he says. "They wanna shove it down my backyard, and I don't like it."
McLaughlin says he realizes the Army screwed up on this one.
"We're here to defend our nation and do everything to see that's accomplished," he says, "but in doing that, since we're surrounded by a great community, we want to work with our neighbors. My hope is we can overcome any bad perceptions of the community not being involved."