By Cilia Kohn (originally published in The Daily Sentinel 1.16.2022)
Happy New Year! We had all hoped that 2022 would kick off as not only a happy, but healthy new year. Instead, Mesa County hit a high for COVID-19 last week, with 532 new cases in a single day and an overall positivity rate of 15.2%. Per the Mesa County Health Department, the new Omicron variant is the culprit, which is proving to be the most contagious strain of the virus to date.
On the bright side, per Jeff Kuhr, Director of Mesa County Public Health (MCPH), “the strain on our hospitals isn’t as severe with this latest surge so far.” Yet, Omicron is already causing some major disruptions for our community. Juniper Ridge Community School was forced to close for the week because of the high number of staff and students absent due to illness. The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce announced on Wednesday that it is rescheduling its Annual Banquet, which was slated for the end of this month, to March 4.
At GJEP, we are cautiously eyeing April 26, the date for the Sixth Annual Western Colorado Economic Summit (visit gjep.org/wces for details). We are optimistic that we will be able to hold an even bigger and better event than last year, and we are closely monitoring the virus so that we can keep attendees safe and in person.
Earlier this week, we were able to participate in person in an important Chamber-led session on rail transportation and supply chain issues, with presentations from Union Pacific and Rocky Mountain Rail and Storage. Over the last several years, an increase in local business, and manufacturing in particular, has added pressure to our transportation infrastructure. This pressure has only been exasperated by the pandemic, which is disrupting supply chains all over the globe, and a slew of recent natural disasters impacting the I-70 corridor from Grand Junction to Denver. As a result, many local businesses have had to look to other places, like Salt Lake City, to manage their distribution needs. A perfect example is RockyMounts. The bike-rack manufacturer made a much-anticipated move here in 2016 and became the first business to open the doors to a beautiful facility in the Riverfront at Las Colonias business park. Five years later, unable to maneuver cargo in and out of Grand Junction as anticipated, the company was forced to move distribution to Salt Lake, leaving a chunk of the brand-new facility sitting empty.
GJEP, the Grand Junction Chamber, Mesa County municipalities and many of our community partners have been working together to try and alleviate these issues. In 2019, the Chamber led a successful endeavor to bring a transload facility to Grand Junction and we have an ongoing conversation with state and federal entities to open a Foreign Trade Zone at the airport. However, constraints out of our hands continue to create roadblocks, particularly when it comes to freight transportation through the Grand Valley via rail.
Tuesday’s “Railroad 101” session didn’t necessarily provide solutions, but it did provide some answers as to why these roadblocks exist. Here is the key takeaway: our market is simply not big enough for intermodal transportation. Union Pacific would need 200 intermodal containers per train per week to justify a stop in Grand Junction. Currently, there are 600 containers destined for Grand Junction per year – that’s a total of three trains per year. It’s not hard to see that creating a stop for just three trains would not be cost-effective for the railroad or local business.
Further, there are geographic and engineering limitations to increasing rail transportation to and from the Grand Valley. For example, height restrictions in the tunnels to the East prevent Union Pacific from double-stacking. And, to be clear, these limitations are not unique to our area. Even Denver and Salt Lake are more difficult to service, given their relative size and location, compared to an inland port in a major market like Chicago.
The good news is that our two local rail hubs currently only operate at 20% capacity. That is good news because it means there is plenty of room to grow. We simply have to get creative and figure out what we can do within these organic limitations. As Union Pacific pointed out during the session, intermodal transportation is not the only way to attract, retain and grow business – and the company ensured their commitment in working with our community on alternative transportation solutions to accommodate demand.
We look forward to continuing this conversation at the 2022 WCES. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy and may you indeed have a Happy, Prosperous New Year.