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Tanker spill raises concerns about A-line route that intersects with road used by hazmat trucks

Posted at 5:55 PM, Jan 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-25 20:54:25-05

AURORA, Colo. — A semi-truck carrying hazardous material spilled around 50-gallons worth of diesel fuel near the intersection of Chambers Street and Smith Road Friday, causing a traffic backup near the area.

The spill itself was considered minor by both the Aurora Police Department and the Aurora Fire Department; the tanker truck has the ability to carry 9,000 gallons worth of fuel but was only carrying 4,000 gallons at the time. Cleanup efforts took about two hours to get everything back to normal.

Police say the spill happened when the trailer became unhitched from the truck for an unknown reason. The driver was issued a citation for spilling of a load.

However, the intersection where the spill happened is at the center of a debate due to its proximity to the A-line.

For years, Chambers Street has been a major thoroughfare for diesel trucks since it is situated next to one of the largest fuel loading facilities in the state, Magellan Midstream Partners.

“The way the federal law reads is that we are to take the shortest, most direct and safest route to get there. For many years that has been Chambers Road,” said Greg Fulton, the President of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which is the state representative for the trucking industry.

More than 20 percent of the state’s fuel comes through the Magellan Pipeline and is distributed throughout the Denver Metro Area, the Front Range and other parts of Colorado.

Because of the high volume of fuel coming through the pipeline, tanker trucks make about 400 round trips to the facility each day, each of them passing through the Chambers Street and Smith Road intersection.

During peak times of the year, that means between 800 and 1,000 hazardous material trucks are passing through.

These trucks are closely regulated by state and local law. There are laws for the routes the trucks are allowed to take and where they have to stop before they cross a railroad. If drivers don’t stick to the designated routes, they could be punished.

“They can be fined, they can actually be cited on this, the company can be fined and cited. If they’re involved in an accident, the other party could sue them, even if they weren’t at fault because it could be viewed or deemed as being off route,” Fulton said.

For years, there has been a Union Pacific railroad crossing near the intersection. It did provide enough room for the trucks to stop, as mandated by law, and for drivers to visually check for trains without blocking the intersection.

The Union Pacific trains pass through between eight and 10 times a day. When the A-line was added close to the intersection, however, it raised a number of safety concerns for the truck drivers passing through.

“At that time, which was seven months before the opening of the A-line, we contacted RTD and some of the other parties to make them aware of it and hopefully identify a solution,” Fulton said.

Fulton considers the intersection low-probability, high-risk, meaning that there is not a good chance of something serious happening, but if it does, there is a high risk of injuring someone.

The A-line trains pass through this intersection every 7 and a half minutes, causing backup and concerns about trucks getting stuck in the intersection since the drivers have to come to a stop there and visually check before proceeding under the law.

“I don’t know if we have anywhere in the country right now where we have this many hazardous materials trucks crossing a major commuter rail line,” Fulton said.

His group reached out to RTD in 2015 to express their concerns.

“Probably the most realistic solution is an alternate route to this,” Fulton said.

For more than three years, trucking groups, RTD, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the City of Aurora and others have been working to find a solution. RTD performed a study to look at potential alternative routes and proposed several, including Havana, Peoria, Sable, Chamber, Airport, Tower and Colfax, with Airport Road being the preferred alternate route.

Since then, however, Fulton said nothing has changed.

“We are 3 and a half years in here and we don’t have a resolution on this,” he said.

This week, the CMCA wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking Secretary Elaine Chao to intervene to help find a safe alternative for these drivers. In the interim, the group asked for crossing guard to be brought to the intersection to help direct traffic.

Fulton believes there would be some costs associated with finding and upgrading a suitable alternative route for the hundreds of hazmat trucks.

“Who pays for this and who takes responsibility for it? I think that that is where the impasse has been,” Fulton said.

He believes this is a matter of public safety.

City of Aurora spokesman Michael Bryant pointed out, however, that none of the trucking community’s concerns were express to the city or to RTD until the A-line construction was completed and testing was already underway. Bryant said the city didn’t intervene because it didn’t know there was a problem.

Bryant said Aurora is working with RTD and the other agencies involved to try to find a way to accommodate these hazmat trucks and memorialize the alternate route so that truckers can begin to use it.

The Federal Railroad Administration considers this a high-risk intersection, however because of the government shutdown, a media spokesperson wasn’t available to provide details on that determination and whether risk mitigation was recommended.

For its part, RTD said it is working to find a solution.

Read RTD’s full statement here:

The crossing at Chambers uses four quad gates with bells and flashers, pedestrian channelization devices, “Second Train Coming” signs for multiple trains at the crossing and other recommended warning devices. There is dynamic vehicle detection and a fixed exit gate delay to prevent trapping vehicles within the crossing. The RTD/UPRR crossing warning system and rail circuitry are interconnected with the Chambers Road traffic signals, preventing vehicles from entering the crossing when it is unsafe to do so.

The crossing design has been accepted and approved by the local jurisdiction (Aurora), the state (Colorado Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC) and the federal agencies (Federal Transit Administration, or FTA; and Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA).

RTD in 2009 completed an environmental impact study (EIS) process, which included preliminary design and several public open houses for stakeholder review and comment. The process included notifications to nearby residents and businesses of the project. The EIS document and preliminary design were published on a federal registry for public review and comment period. No concerns were raised by the Colorado Motor Carriers Association (CMCA) or any of the individual carriers at that time.

The FTA Record of Decision and the EIS did not identify any adverse impact or mitigations needed related to the University of Colorado A Line crossings and hazardous materials transportation. Through the EIS and design/build period, Chambers Road was not classified as a designated hazardous material route.

In 2015 the CMCA expressed concerns about truck traffic across the shared RTD/Union Pacific rail corridor at Chambers Road, including concerns about trucks carrying hazardous materials. Since then, regular discussions about these issues have been held involving RTD, CMCA, Colorado State Patrol (CSP), FRA, CPUC, various departments within the city of Aurora and other interested agencies. As a result of these meetings, RTD prepared a report to identify safe and feasible alternate routes for hazardous materials transportation that meets the operational needs, regulatory criteria and state statutes for hazardous materials transport for local pickup and delivery in the project area. Alternative routes identified in this study include Airport Boulevard and Tower Road. Airport Boulevard is the preferred alternative.

We remain committed to work with all partners on alternatives.