City utility officials say their plan to buy out 15 properties for a newly rede-signed rail spur -- instead of the near 30 residential lots it had considered buying under an earlier plan -- will allow the working-class community around downtown's Martin Drake power plant to survive.
But residents affected by the latest rail spur proposal tell a more ambiguous and far less optimistic story about the neighborhood's future than power company spokesmen.
The utilities department had come under criticism -- even a request from some residents to buy out the whole neighborhood -- because the earlier proposal would have encircled the neighborhood, cutting it off from nearby residential blocks (see graphic).
'The earlier plan would have cut the neighborhood in two,' said George Dushan, a spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities Department. 'This plan will have less of an impact.'
In short, the new plan extends four parallel tracks into a city block just south of West Mill Street that's now home to about ten homes and about five other vacant properties.
While some property owners welcome the buyout, others are vehemently opposed. 'I do not see any reason in the world why they need my piece of property,' said 73-year-old Ray Clark, whose home on the corner of West Mill and Sierra Madre streets would be removed under the power company's plan.
Utility engineers say they need to buy out all the homes on the block to create a buffer between the planned rail lines and the remaining neighborhood.
But Clark said he doesn't want to move. 'That spur is gonna be a block away from me,' said Clark, whose mother bought his home in 1940.
Still another group of residents is angry because the new plan means that Colorado Springs Utilities will not consider buying them out. "We're going to be trapped here," said Peggy Pantoja, who's home on Mill Street was in the path of earlier rail spur, but is now left out of the plan.
Pantoja reflects the feelings of another group of residents who wanted to be bought out because they feared that a proposed homeless mall planned for the power plant property would hurt the neighborhood.
But it's not just the Montgomery Community Center -- as the shelter and soup kitchen is called -- that worries the residents. Along with the rail spur and the shelter, the El Pomar Foundation and the American Red Cross have proposed a day care center for shelter kids that would require the removal of an additional six homes.
Future plans call for still more affordable housing projects that could mean the removal of still more homes. "This is terrible," said William Burke, whose home at 915 Baltic St. will not be bought out under the latest rail spur plan.
That infuriates Burke, who initiated a petition last month in which residents essentially asked Colorado Springs Utilities to consider buying out the whole neighborhood. "I did all this legwork and [the utilities company] took my proposal and used it against me," he said.
Utilities director Phil Tollefson said he understands why Burke feels betrayed. But he said the initial rail spur plan, which called for a curved loop connecting the power plant to nearby rail lines, proved to be impractical once engineering studies were completed.
The earlier loop idea was ruled out after engineers realized that the curve required to connect the power plant to the Burlington Northern rail line would not meet industry standards, said John Tancock, construction manager for the utilities company.
Further, the two train lines at the proposed point of intersection would be banked in opposite directions, making them difficult to connect, he said.
At a recent meeting of the Utilities Board -- made up of members of city council -- the elected leaders directed Tollefson to try to find other non-profit agencies willing to buy out residents.
But Tollefson said it's not his agency's job to buy out residents outside the rail line's path. "We certainly recognize the impact of the rail road project and are willing to acquire a reasonable amount of property to mitigate the impacts of that," he said. "Unfortunately, it's a stretch to use ratepayer funds to mitigate the impacts of the homeless center."
Standing inside a control tower over the coal-unloading platform inside the Martin Drake Power Plant, fuel supply manager Greg Berwick makes his case for the proposed rail spur as a 1,700-horsepower locomotive taxis coal cars along the tracks below.
"This will go on well past midnight," Berwick said, the winter sun just dimming behind the clouds over Cheyenne Mountain. "The rail spur would allow us to cut down on overtime considerably."
The current track arrangement inside the plant, he said, requires workers to break 100-car freight trains into five, 20-car sections before unloading -- all at a top speed of a half-mile per hour.
By extending track into the neighborhood, the utility would only have to break trains into three sections of 40, or possibly 60 cars, depending on the final design.
That would cut down on overtime costs, and reduce the amount of time the electric company needs to lease the cars and locomotives from railroad companies, he said. Because the spur could also handle trains up to 120 cars long, CSU would also be able to negotiate better coal prices, he added.
All told, the power company could save anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per year, depending on a wide range of variables, he said. Most of that, he said, would be passed on to ratepayers.
Exactly how much ratepayers would save is unclear, however. With roughly 171,000 ratepayers, even a $1 million savings per year translates to an average savings of $5.84 a year, or 48 cents per month, for the average ratepayer.
Because ratepayers pay different prices depending on volume consumed, utility officials don't know exactly how much most homeowners or business would save.
Whether the potential savings is worth the loss of ten homes is something that council may ultimately decide if CSU needs to invoke eminent domain to seize private property. The utility company would pay for land acquisition from $50 million it holds in reserve accounts, Tollefson said.
Left in the dust
The latest rail spur plan is complicated, however, by the fact that some who signed William Burke's petition didn't necessarily agree with all the statements made in the attached cover letter -- which was written and attached later by Burke.
Resident Ray Clark said he signed the petition thinking he was asking the utilities department to state its intentions, not necessarily declaring his desire to sell out.
Likewise, Mill Street resident Naomi Yager said she was more concerned about the utility company's plans than about the shelter. "I realize those people have to have a place to go," she said.
For his part, Burke said he was completely candid with his neighbors when he went door-to-door collecting signatures. "I explained it all to them," he said.
Whatever the case, residents now know the utilities' intentions, which agency officials say are based more on engineering requirements than on the contents of the petition.
But because some in fact don't want to sell, Tollefson may have to invoke eminent domain, a move that would contradict his earlier statements that he would not "ram the spur down anyone's throat" if residents didn't want it built.
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