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San Juan County receives $2 million of federal funding for railroad planning study


Hannah Grover   | Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — San Juan County will use $2 million of federal funding to study the feasibility of building a railroad spur connecting Farmington with Gallup.

Local officials say this could create economic development potential. The county has been hoping to build a rail spur for decades and signed a memorandum of understanding with Navajo Nation earlier this year to work together on the railroad.

The county was awarded funding through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development or BUILD Transportation Discretionary Grant program, which is administered by the US Department of Transportation. There were more than 700 applicants for that funding, according to a press release from the county.

“This Administration is making significant investments in infrastructure, and this $1 billion in BUILD grants will repair, rebuild, and revitalize transportation systems across America,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in a press release.

The BUILD grant program provides funding for roads, bridges, transit, rail, ports and intermodal transportation. Since 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded nearly $4 billion in funding for projects nationwide.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the railroad will reduce the amount of freight traffic on highways in the northwest corner of the state, which will make those highways safer and reduce the amount of maintenance needed on those roads.

“I commend San Juan County for securing grant dollars to conduct feasibility studies for this initiative,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a press release. “Informing local residents and Navajo chapters and gaining their support is essential to move this proposed project forward. We look forward to working with San Juan County and others to determine the feasibility of this project.”

More: Navajo Nation, San Juan County officials say partnership could make railroad a reality

While the county has been hoping to build a railroad and has previously used state funds to explore the possibility, this grant funding marks the furthest step the county has taken over the past decades in the effort to return rail service to the community, according to a press release.

The money will be used to first fund an economic feasibility study and then a design and construction study, which will examine right of way, alignment and access.

"Rail has long been a crucial missing piece of our logistics resources,” said Warren Unsicker, director of economic development for the City of Farmington. “This stands to not only create countless new jobs but attract new businesses that would not have otherwise considered our area."

The railroad will likely require a new business partner, like a petrochemical manufacturing plant, before it can be built. This is because of the hefty price tag. It would cost an estimated $100 million to $250 million to build a railroad, but that is a fraction of the cost to build a petrochemical manufacturing plant. And the region has abundant natural gas that would be needed for petrochemical manufacturing. This natural gas could be turned into plastic pellets, transported out via railroad and used to make a variety of products including clothing.

By completing the feasibility study, county spokesperson Devin Neeley said county officials can approach short-line railroad developers with a shovel-ready project that includes a route already planned.

The county, he said, has no plans of owning either the railroad or the petrochemical manufacturing plant. Instead, it hopes to partner with private industry and the industry would provide the funding and own the rail line.

More: San Juan County seeks federal BUILD grant funding for railroad spur design, plan

The plan has received widespread support. Every member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation supported the county’s application for BUILD grant funding.

“Award of this grant proves just how important a possible rail system is to our area,” said San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner in the press release. “The economic development represented by a freight system means numerous jobs for San Juan County and Navajo Nation residents as well as a secure future of economic diversity.”

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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