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Colorado commission works on plan for Front Range passenger rail

September 3, 2017 Updated: September 5, 2017 at 4:34 pm
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The Southwest Chief rolls westbound toward Trinidad and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Amtrak photo.

A state commission has begun exploring ways to realize Colorado transportation officials' vision of passenger rail service stretching up and down the Front Range.

The commission, with government representatives from Denver to Trinidad, has until Dec. 1 to submit to the Legislature a plan detailing steps forward and funding options. The ultimate hope is a commuter rail that runs from Fort Collins to Pueblo, which probably would cost $5 billion to $15 billion, said David Krutsinger, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Transportation's transit and rail program.

The group also has a more immediate objective: rerouting Amtrak's Southwest Chief line, which runs through the state's southeastern corner, to include stops in Pueblo and Walsenburg, which officials say could be done in less than five years.

As politicians scrounge for money to repair Colorado's ailing highways, and leaders in the Pikes Peak region search for hundreds of millions of dollars to widen Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock, the commission members see an opportunity to press a transportation solution that can sustain Colorado's exploding population.

"The single-occupancy vehicle is just not going to be the best solution for the future of transportation in Colorado," said commission member Jill Gaebler, president pro tem of the Colorado Springs City Council. "We need to be thinking bigger and more long term."

The commission will meet for the second time this week, and its 13 members plan to convene at least once a month, she said.

The commission, renamed and repurposed with a measure signed into a law by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May, was created in 2014 to devise a plan to rehabilitate more than 100 miles of track on Amtrak's Chicago-to-Los Angeles line, which stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, and consider options for the Chief's expansion.

Commissioners now are being asked to come up with sources for the millions of dollars needed to rehabilitate about 50 miles of remaining dilapidated track. Once completed, the improvements are expected to save trains up to two hours on each trip, with the two proposed stops tacking on an hour or less in travel time and the Pueblo station adding about 14,000 trips each year, according to CDOT.

The commission is unsure how much the extension would cost, although Pueblo voters elected in November to set aside money for it, said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, the group's interim chairman.

Voters there approved a ballot question that would let the county spend excess revenues that otherwise would be returned to taxpayers under the  Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, to fund projects including the reroute. How much money each project will get hasn't been finalized though, Pace said.

The cost of extending the line will be relatively low, he said, because existing freight railways would be used. But some engineering challenges remain, including logistical negotiations with railroad lines and considerations on  platform construction and tracking of the trains.

"We see the Chief (reroute) as an incremental step," he said. "The big prize is connecting the Front Range of Colorado via passenger rail."

The price tag of a 180-mile commuter rail varies, with a less-expensive line traveling at lower speeds on the existing freight train corridor, and a pricier line traveling up to 180 mph just east of I-25, Krutsinger said. But the state doesn't have the money for either option. Paying for the massive undertaking probably would require voters to approve new taxes or an increase in the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since the early 1990s, he said.

Plus, there are political hurdles to creating a railway that crosses jurisdictional lines - such as where the stops should be and how already-crowded city centers would make room for them. But Krutsinger said a commuter rail is essential if Colorado wants to keep up with other growing population centers such as Boston and Salt Lake City. The Front Range population, now more than 4 million, is expected to increase to upward of 6 million by 2040, he said.

"You look at cities with 6 million people, and they almost without exception have rail networks for their population. If we're going to stay competitive, Colorado is going to need to do it."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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