Utah Department of Transportation Commission chair man Jeff Holt

Imagine landing at the Salt Lake City International Airport and seeing a billboard that reads ‘Scenic Railroad to Moab.’

Speaking at a Feb. 17 Moab Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) Commission chairman Jeff Holt described his vision of passenger rail service connecting Moab with Salt Lake City and other population centers in between.

The idea raised some eyebrows – some in interest, and others in skepticism.

Holt promoted the scenic rail as an opportunity for tour companies to offer package deals that would include skiing up north, plus a trip on the scenic railroad to Moab. He also described it as a good fit for city-dwelling Utahns with “kids, bikes and backpacks,” who may not want to make a four-hour drive, but who would enjoy taking the passenger rail down to Moab for a weekend of outdoor recreation.

“That would be a really fun way to come into Moab,” Holt said.

During an interview with the Moab Sun News, Holt pointed to the potential economic benefits of a scenic rail line.

“It’s hard for most people to make a living in Moab with low-wage tourism jobs,” he said. “If there’s a way to mitigate the seasonality with a rail service, I think that would be great.”

If scenic rail service is going to become a reality, Holt said there must be interest in the community.

“It’s going to have to be a ground-level, grassroots kind of thing,” he told the chamber audience. “If the community wants it to happen, it can.”

And, Holt explained, the interested parties would have to be willing to network and negotiate to bring all the pieces of the project together, such as obtaining permission from Union Pacific Railroad to use the track, finding investors and getting the railcars designed.

“What sings to Union Pacific is not what Moab has to offer,” Holt said. “But what about other counties? You may need to trade something, do business with other municipal entities, and be up at the (state capitol) making deals. Go out and find, and make, those partnerships.”

“The question is,” he added, “can Moab work together with others to make this happen?”

Holt told the luncheon audience that he originally had the idea for the scenic rail line when he was in Moab taking a tour of the new bridge on U.S. Highway 191. He said he noticed the railroad spur over by the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) site and thought, “I wonder what they’re going to do with that.” And the dream of a scenic rail line was born.

After he had the idea for the rail line, Holt asked former Grand County Council member Gene Ciarus to convene a meeting with the county council, Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, and others, so he could speak with them about the concept. Holt said he told those at the meeting, “Money is never the problem. It’s putting the logistics together to make this work.”

He added, “This is the where the idea for the (Seven County Infrastructure Coalition) started, so that Grand County gets a piece of the pie.”

Holt said he thought the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board, most commonly known as the CIB, may be interested in funding the rail line project. The CIB provides loans or grants to state agencies and subdivisions in areas impacted by mineral resource development on federal lands, to be used for capital projects, like infrastructure. Holt recently resigned from the CIB due to potential future conflicts of interest.

Yet, as Holt explained, “One of the things that the CIB values more than anything else is counties working together. But Grand County just took a major step back from that.”

Holt was referring to Grand County’s withdrawal in January of this year from the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition — now the Six County Infrastructure Coalition.

Christina Sloan, a local attorney who attended Holt’s chamber luncheon talk and who publicly opposed Grand County’s past involvement with the coalition, had this to say about the scenic rail line proposal:

“Grand County is a partner with many entities on many projects that enhance the quality of life for our residents, and we will continue to seek such opportunities into the future,” she said. “The scenic rail line may be such a project.”

But Sloan was skeptical of the kinds of trade-offs that Grand County might have to make to see the rail line project happen.

“There is just no reason to trade the wild lands in the Book Cliffs or the air quality in Grand County to make it happen,” she said.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson introduced Holt at the chamber luncheon. Jackson told the Moab Sun News that nothing could happen with a rail line until the pile at UMTRA site is cleaned up. But he said it is still good to be thinking ahead.

“There are enough complexities that we should find out if there is interest early on,” Jackson said. “I think it has potential opportunities to bring more visitors to Moab with less carbon footprint.”

Holt added during his interview that he has been approached by several potential investors who are interested in the scenic rail idea. If a group formed to explore the scenic rail potential, Holt said he would refer investors to that entity, as well as other individuals with relevant expertise.

Jackson said he’d be willing to facilitate such a group, “if there’s interest.”

UDOT official shares idea for scenic rail

“It’s going to have to be a ground-level, grassroots kind of thing … If the community wants it to happen, it can.”