What if something as simple as getting freight trains to stop for a moment in Grand Junction could keep businesses and jobs on the Western Slope, support Grand Valley economic-development and reduce truck traffic on Interstate 70?
“It would be huge; an absolute game-changer for the Western Slope,” if rail owners Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe would stop freight trains in Grand Junction for loading and unloading shipping containers, said Robin Brown, the head of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. That group is tasked with luring and retaining more businesses in the Grand Valley.
Many businesses on the Western Slope that use overseas manufacturing rely on intermodal transportation terminals in Denver and Salt Lake City, the hubs where rail cars carrying shipping containers sent from overseas manufacturing plants are unloaded into nearby warehouses and distribution centers. With the spiking costs of tariffs, a global scarcity of shipping containers and a shortage of truck drivers, the lack of a rail yard that can unload shipping containers is pinching many rural businesses.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
So many rural economic development problems are complex. And the solutions are equally complicated, typically involving federal, state and local coordination with regional business owners.
“But this solution is so simple. We know the problem and we know exactly how to fix it,” said Brown, who described the cost of renovating the Grand Junction rail yard to offload shipping containers as “minimal.”
“It’s just convincing the right powers that be to do it,” he said. “Yes, there is a lot to it, but here we have a completely transformative solution to a problem and it’s a matter of making it happen. If we could solve this for Grand Junction, we could solve this for all of rural America.”
Bobby Noyes is ready for a rail yard in Grand Junction to unload shipping containers. Noyes used to make all his RockyMount racks in the U.S. But increasingly technical manufacturing requirements and specific materials became too difficult to handle stateside, so he turned to factories in Asia.
Now, the entrepreneur who founded his bike-rack and lock company in Boulder in 1995 and recently moved his operation to Grand Junction, is turning to Utah for help that can’t be found on the Western Slope.
As part of an overarching mission to establish the Grand Valley as an outdoor industry hub, Grand Junction economic development cheerleaders enticed Noyes to relocate and build a warehouse that would be supported by a local rail yard.
But they were mistaken about the rail yard’s ability to offload containers sent from China. Trains stop in Grand Junction to allow passengers to load and disembark, but shipping containers roll on through, passing right by Noyes’ brand new and unusable warehouse en route to Denver and Salt Lake City. So now Noyes is paying to truck his hitch racks and other products to Colorado from a distribution facility in Salt Lake City.
“I like it here culturally, but moving the business has not been what we signed up for,” Noyes said. “I spoke to both Union Pacific and Burlington Northern which own the rail lines here. The market is too small and they hinted the collective demand is 20,000 containers a year for the service zone to justify it, and we are not even in the ballpark.”
As Colorado’s economic development champions promote the Western Slope as fertile ground to relocate businesses, the region’s growers, miners and makers are increasingly relying on Utah to handle warehousing and distribution near the bustling Salt Lake City freight rail terminal, which can offload shipping containers.
Big Agnes moved its distribution operation to Salt Lake City from Steamboat Springs in 2014. Other Western Slope businesses that rely on overseas production acknowledge that once they reach a certain size, they will need to move operations closer to that Salt Lake City terminal.
Osprey Packs founder Mike Pfotenhauer moved his nascent operation to the Four Corners region from southern California in 1990. Colorado is part of the brand now, company CEO Layne Rigney said.
“You can’t decouple Colorado and Osprey,” he said.
But you can split part of Osprey’s business with Utah, where the Cortez-based company has operated a distribution center in Ogden since 2014.
“Nobody starts a business worrying about logistics like this,” Rigney said. “But you do reach a point where logistics impacts pricing, which impacts your competitiveness in the market as you think about sustainability. The more products you produce, the more logistics weigh heavily on your carbon footprint and the economics of your operation.”
It’s not like Grand Junction hasn’t been asking railroad owners to stop freight trains at the local rail yard. It’s a common request every time someone at Union Pacific or Burlington Northern Santa Fe picks up the phone. But the train operators need a specific shipping volume in a region to add a new intermodal facility to the two operators’ roughly 60 intermodal hubs across the country.
But no one is absolutely sure how much freight is moving across Western Colorado. The Federal Highway Administration estimated 420 million tons of products were moved into, out of and around Colorado in 2016. That’s up from 78.6 million tons of products moved into, from and within the state in 2014, according to Colorado’s 2018 freight and passenger rail plan.
Union Pacific Railroad “is always open to exploring new opportunities to enhance our intermodal network,” said Robynn Tysver, a spokeswoman for the railroad.
That 2018 plan noted increased manufacturing activity in Grand Junction and the need for new freight loading and unloading facilities near population centers.
“Many businesses, particularly in rural areas, cannot compete without rail access and could be at risk of failure or relocation within or out of the state,” the 2018 report reads
The Office of Economic Development and International Trade is joining the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Grand Junction Economic Partnership to study freight movement across the Western Slope. That study will detail freight traffic that might help in negotiations with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
And the disruption of rail service during the pandemic, coupled with a flood of federal infrastructure dollars, has made the two dominant rail owners more open to discussion, Brown said. (The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill could help improve rail transportation, with $66 billion directed toward “modernizing and expanding transit and rail networks across the country.”)
“We have the facility. There will need to be some upgrades, but that’s not the problem,” Brown said. “Talking with UP and Burlington Northern, they have said they will have the conversation. In the past, they’ve just said it’s impossible.”
Bill Gamber and Len Zanni spent a long time researching ways to keep distribution of their Big Agnes sleeping bags, tents and outdoor gear in Colorado. The 25-year-old Steamboat Springs company was booming in 2016 and the two owners checked out warehouses near Denver’s intermodal terminal as well as locations on the West Coast. The Denver warehouses were hard to find as marijuana growers took over. Shipping on trucks from ports in Los Angeles and the Northwest was pricey.
“And, really, Salt Lake City has this whole system so damn dialed,” Gamber said. “It just made sense for us to go with Salt Lake. Grand Junction, if they can get those trains to stop, could be a mini-Salt Lake. They would have a warehouse village around their rail yard. It would save a lot of people a lot of money and a lot of headaches and give the Grand Valley an opportunity to lure more outdoor businesses like they want.”
Gamber sees the benefits of a Grand Junction intermodal terminal also helping schools like Western Colorado in Gunnison, Colorado Mesa in Grand Junction and Colorado Mountain College, all of which offer academic programs focused on the outdoor industry and product development. As those students innovate and create new businesses, they could use a shipping hub on the Western Slope, Gamber said.
“Helping existing Colorado companies thrive or attracting new brands that might need to offload freight in Grand Junction is important to economic growth,” Gamber said.
Johnny Lombino started SOL Paddle Boards in 2011 in Telluride and last summer he had to move his warehousing and distribution to Los Angeles from Denver. He had been paying to truck everything from Denver to Telluride for distribution to customers and retailers. He said he would move his business to Grand Junction “in a heartbeat” if he could offload shipping containers of his boards there.
With an intermodal terminal in Grand Junction, local retailers and customers could pick up his boards at a warehouse and he would not have to rely on UPS to ship every one of his boards.
“The carbon footprint I’m creating just because we can’t offload containers in Grand Junction is so painful,” he said. “I’d love to be operating in Grand Junction. They have tax breaks, incentive programs and ways they can help growing businesses with commercial real estate and I can’t take advantage of any of that without relying on 18-wheelers from distant ports.”
And then there’s the increasing truck traffic on I-70, which has been choked this summer with multiple prolonged closures in the critical Glenwood Canyon. Recent slides in the Grizzly Creek fire burn zone buried and damaged the interstate in several areas, forcing a multi-hour detour that will last weeks if not months.
Relying on trucks irks Noyes. In addition to the daily and expensive struggle to get trucks to haul his RockyMount racks to Grand Junction from Utah — on top of the $20,000 per container cost to ship from Asia — Noyes hates crowding roads with semis.
“I am a bike advocate and putting semi-trucks on the road often and needlessly is difficult to swallow,” he said. “The situation is compounded by a shortage of drivers, traffic getting out of Salt Lake City, trucks getting stopped and weighed at the port of Loma … and winter makes the problems even worse.”
One more reason for hope for shipping container rail service in Grand Junction is U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who serves on the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Hickenlooper, who visited Grand Junction last month, said the new federal infrastructure bill will support more freight traffic in Colorado.
“We’ve got to go big on surface transportation. Our bipartisan infrastructure proposal would jumpstart shipping by rail and could be a game-changer for places like Grand Junction. It cuts traffic on our roads and brings new business opportunities to the area,” he said in a statement emailed to The Colorado Sun. “We don’t have a choice. We must support a resilient economy on the Western Slope and keep rural America competitive.”