Front Range passenger rail sees some light - way off in the distance

A passenger rail that would cart passengers up and down the Front Range remains a long way off. (AP file photo)

Colorado voters rejected a proposed sales tax to bankroll infrastructure improvements last year, but a new survey suggests that taxpayers might be willing to pony up for a Front Range passenger rail.

Sixty-one percent of the 600 Colorado residents surveyed said they would support a sales tax increase to fund a line stretching from Pueblo to Fort Collins — an effort that would cost an estimated $5 billion, according to the study.

Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they would oppose a tax increase, 11% were undecided and 1 percent refused to answer, reports the survey by Magellan Strategies and RBI Strategies & Research, which was presented to a state commission last week.

The survey didn’t specify how much the sales tax rate would need to be raised to pay for the project, though. And the statewide commission that’s studying what it would take to build the system still has many questions to answer, including what technologies would be used, where the stations would be and who would be involved in the funding plan.

“Those initial numbers are very encouraging in terms of people’s willingness at least to want to move this project forward,” said commission project director Randy Grauberger. “Lots of work still needs to be done, however.”

Colorado lawmakers will probably have the chance to advance the passenger rail endeavor during the next legislative session. Sal Pace, a former state representative and Pueblo County Commissioner, said the commission will likely push for the introduction of a measure to create a special district for the line. That would pave the way for the district to levy taxes to fund the project. However, new taxes would have to be approved by voters within the district’s boundaries, Pace said.

“At some point, we’ll be asking for a referred measure to explore funding for the passenger rail service,” Pace said.

Voters could see a question on their ballots related to the passenger rail project as early as next fall or in 2021 or 2022, Pace said. He noted that the commission won’t pursue a ballot measure until details of the plan, such as station locations and technologies, have been ironed out.

Last November, Colorado voters turned down a statewide sales tax increase that would have amounted to about 6 cents on a $10 purchase and generated roughly $6 billion for the state’s $9 billion transportation projects wish list. Almost 60 percent of voters said “no” to the measure, Proposition 110.

In addition to a potential sales tax, the commission is eyeing other financing possibilities, such as private investment. A new passenger rail could cause property values to rise for homes and businesses near its stations; so, additional property tax revenues spurred by the system’s construction could also be a source of funding, Pace said.

This summer, the commission hired Nebraska-based consulting firm HDR to begin a feasibility study and federally mandated service development plan and start pursuing environmental clearances. That work will take a few years, Grauberger said.

Officials only have a rough idea of a potential construction timeline. If the project moves forward, crews would begin construction in five to 10 years, Grauberger said.

The $5 billion estimate is far from firm, he said. The figure is based on a 2015 study that estimated a roughly 60-mile commuter rail from Fort Collins to Denver would cost about $1.4 billion.

Starting next month, the commission will begin meeting with elected officials, transit representatives and other community leaders across the state. Public meetings will follow to get input from residents, Grauberger said.

The survey found that the vast majority of residents polled — 85 percent — supported the general idea of a passenger rail to move people up and down the Front Range.

About a quarter of the survey’s participants were in El Paso, Pueblo, Huerfano or Las Animas counties. Half were in the Denver area, and another quarter or so were in counties north of Denver, including Boulder and Weld. The study was conducted via phone and online in early October.

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