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Wasatch County Council not ready to forgive Heber railroad’s $2 million debt

Riders on the Heber Valley Railroad look out over Deer Creek Reservoir.
Ben Lasseter
Riders on the Heber Valley Railroad look out over Deer Creek Reservoir.

The Heber Valley Railroad holds $2 million in debt to Wasatch County. County leaders aren’t ready to forgive the sum outright.

The Heber Valley’s historic railroad holds close to $3 million in debt as it struggles to increase its profits.

The railroad’s executive director, Mark Nelson, asked the Wasatch County Council to consider forgiving the debt it owes the county in a presentation earlier this month.

“The total debt to Wasatch County is $2 million,” he said. “The monthly payments to the county… total a little over $20,000 a month or about $240,000 a year.”

Those loans are being used for track repairs and equipment.

The railroad also holds a nearly $800,000 loan from Zion’s Bank, bringing its total debt to $2.8 million.

Nelson is a member of the county council and recused himself from the discussion.

He said the railroad had a successful year in 2023, especially with its popular Polar Express holiday train rides, and the board has ideas for projects to make the “Heber Creeper” more profitable moving forward.

They hope to expand service at Vivian Park in Utah County, targeting riders who would bring their bikes to access trails off the train. They also want to create a dinner train modeled after the Napa Valley Wine Train.

“I think the future is very bright if we can figure out how to get there,” Nelson said.

But those proposed infrastructure improvements and programs come with a price tag too: Nelson said the railroad is looking at about $10 million in potential capital purchases over the next several years.

Other members of the board, including Midway Mayor Celeste Johnson, echoed Nelson’s request for debt forgiveness.

“The board is very committed to keeping the train financially viable, responsible, et cetera,” she said. “But I think if we could forgive that debt… we’ll be using that $240,000 a year to do things that [are] going to continue to generate revenue.”

But Nelson’s fellow council members didn’t jump at the suggestion of forgiving the debt to the county outright. Erik Rowland asked for more options and more transparency.

“I feel like there’s a lot of creative solutions we can come up with from outright debt forgiveness to some kind of combination of loan consolidation or something,” he said.

The county council asked Nelson to bring back more detailed information about the outstanding debt. They’ll continue their discussion, considering more options for how to handle the railroad’s debt, during their work meeting Feb. 14.

The Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority is an independent state agency. Utah code dictates its board include government leaders from around Wasatch County.

This year, the Utah legislature will decide whether to extend the sunset date for the railroad authority for five years, to 2029.