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)

A state commission exploring the construction of a Front Range passenger rail has started slow, but the group finally is rolling. 

Nearly two years after its formation, the commission is working with the Colorado Department of Transportation this summer to hire a contractor to study what it would take to build a system stretching more than 170 miles from Pueblo to Fort Collins. 

The chosen firm will assess potential routes and rail technologies, provide cost estimates and identify options for who would run the system and how it would be financed, said commission project director Randy Grauberger.  

As part of the job, the contractor also will update its findings before the General Assembly during the next legislative session. The goal is for lawmakers to refer a measure to the November 2020 ballot that would establish a transportation district or other funding mechanism to allow a passenger rail project to move forward, Grauberger said. 

The public will have plenty of chances to weigh in as the feasibility study progresses, he said. 

The commission is proceeding with the study at a time when local and state officials increasingly tout passenger rail as a transit mode that can keep up with explosive population growth along the Front Range. 

Crews broke ground last year on a $350 million widening of Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock. But adding more lanes in the years to come "is not the answer," said commission Chairwoman Jill Gaebler. 

"We’re obviously willing to pay to help ease congestion along I-25," said Gaebler, a member of the Colorado Springs City Council. "I’m hopeful that the citizens will understand that (passenger rail) will be a sustainable mode that is scale-able. And we can rely upon it, hopefully, for generations to come." 

The firm that conducts the study is expected to examine other transit opportunities along the stretch and help the state secure some of the federally required approvals it would need for a passenger rail system. 

But even if a Front Range passenger rail system gets the green light, construction remains "a ways down the road," said Grauberger. 

Devising a service development plan for the Federal Railroad Administration and completing an environmental impact statement likely will take about three years, he said. 

Beyond that, Grauberger couldn't say how long it might take to build a system or what it might cost.

"My crystal ball is a little too cloudy to answer those specific questions now, unfortunately," he said. 

David Krutsinger, of CDOT's transit and rail program, estimated in 2017 that a line from Fort Collins to Pueblo would cost $5 billion to $15 billion. But those numbers are based on studies that are several years old, Grauberger said. 

In late 2017, the commission unveiled a 15-year "road map" that included final design and construction. Just completing initial design plans, along with the required planning studies and reviews, was estimated to cost $150 million to $300 million, according to the document.

The state has allotted the commission about $1.5 million for the feasibility study. More money will be needed to finish the assessment, and the commission is exploring ways to cover that cost, Grauberger said.

An additional $1 million in state money is paying commission staff and matching federal funds to improve the Colorado stretch of Amtrak's Southwest Chief line, which has stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. The group also is considering adding stops in Pueblo and Walsenburg to the line, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. 

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