The city of Colorado Springs is hiring a consultant to determine where a new train station could be built to serve a proposed Front Range rail line.
The $200,000 grant-funded study to examine locations for a station is one of several steps government officials are taking ahead of asking voters to raise sales taxes to support rail service from Fort Collins to Pueblo. The state legislature formed a new district this spring that encompasses the communities the line could serve and has the power to ask voters for a sales or use tax increase of up to .8%.
Before asking for money, the state will have an operating and financial plan in place, said Spencer Dodge, Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission Liaison at a meeting of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association on Friday. Amtrak, the quasi-public national rail corporation, is expected to run the service and envisions three trips daily between Pueblo and Fort Collins, he said.
The state is also examining a passenger rail service between La Junta and Colorado Springs that could get started ahead of the larger Front Range rail project, he said. Amtrak could run a few cars along existing freight lines from its La Junta stop to Colorado Springs.
The existing rail lines would have to be updated to provide the service, he said. The state is spending $450,000, from a mix of federal and local funds, to examine the option. Amtrak proposed the service before planning efforts for the larger Front Range rail service ramped up, said Jim Souby, rail commission chairman. The service could co-exist with a larger Front Range rail service and provide a connection to the larger Amtrak system.
While local officials are planning for rail expansions, Congress is weighing massive investments in federal rail in a bipartisan infrastructure bill. The bill includes $66 billion for intercity passenger rail and freight among other funding options that could help make rail expansion across the country possible. But states need to be ready to apply for the funds, experts at the Association meeting said.
Planning for new passenger stations, including one in Colorado Springs, is a piece of the larger planning efforts, Dodge said.
"With no station location studies completed, there is a risk that passenger rail service could be ready to go, with nowhere to stop," he said. Station locations can also help project ridership, train performance and economic benefits for communities. Pueblo is also completing a station location study.
Jill Gaebler, a rail commission member from Colorado Springs, said the Martin Drake Power Plant site could make sense for a new train station stop since it is right on the tracks and it is already publicly owned. The city could have results from the study to share in June, city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said.
Gaebler said the service as a whole is needed to ensure reliable transportation along a critical corridor. The Interstate 25 "gap" project to add express lanes along 18 miles of roadway between Castle Rock and Monument will not solve the area's congestion problems and car crashes can still shut down traffic, she said.
"We need to start being strategically thoughtful about funding a new mode of transportation now, before we have absolute gridlock," she said.
El Paso County Commission Chairman Stan VanderWerf said Friday he was opposed to the rail service because the county's population isn't large enough to warrant it and because the cost to taxpayers could be steep.
"We don't have the kind of population density that I think would make the rail necessary," he said. "... The major push, it seems, is to use public money to fund this project. It's a huge investment and I don't think we'll see the ridership that we think we will."
Moving forward with a rail tax will require consensus among representatives from across the district, including two representatives from the Colorado Springs area who will decide whether to ask the voters for a tax increase. The 17-memberboard is expected to meet for the first time in May.
Gazette Reporter Breeanna Jent contributed to this report.