Colorado moves toward Front Range rail study (copy)

Passenger rail service along Interstate 25 could benefit greatly from new federal spending bill.

The long-term vision to bring passenger rail to the Colorado Front Range got a bit more validation last week from Amtrak. 

Amtrak, the quasi-public national rail corporation, identified a new passenger rail line from Cheyenne to Pueblo in its 15-year plan to add more than 30 new routes and serve up to 160 new communities, depending on federal funding.

The map was released April 1, just as the presidential administration is rolling out a $2 trillion infrastructure spending bill that could provide $80 billion for rail projects. 

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the Front Range passenger rail project is well positioned to receive funding because the Colorado Department of Transportation, Amtrak's Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission are already working on the rail line, which gives the project an advantage over others.  

A Front Range rail line would also help relieve congestion along Interstate 25, Magliari said. 

"A train would be a really good answer to what people face on I-25," he said. 

The rail line's inclusion on the Amtrak map is also reassuring to local leaders, including Colorado Springs Councilwoman Jill Gaebler, a member of the state's passenger rail commission. The map reflects in writing what Amtrak has told the commission, she said. 

"They share our belief that this rail line is very important," Gaebler said.

The federal money could be paired with state funding if a proposed new fee on gasoline passes the state legislature. The state could also form a new sales tax district to help fund the rail line, she said.  

Those potential funding sources could come together to help the passenger rail line, likely to cost billions of dollars, open in the next five to 10 years, Gaebler said. 

An alternative to I-25 is going to be needed even after the $419 million "Gap" project adding a lane in either direction between Castle Rock and Monument is finished, she said. 

"No amount of added lanes is going to change the congestion issues," Gaebler said, although the new lanes could make the highway safer.

The state is also out of room to add additional lanes once the interstate expansion project is completed, she said.

Not everyone supports the rail line idea. The "newly minted money" would be better spent on roads designed to serve driverless cars and ridesharing services, said Jon Caldara, president of the right-leaning Independence Institute and a columnist for the Gazette and Colorado Politics. 

"We need to build infrastructure that is friendly to the way we commute in Colorado," he said.

If it gets built, the most likely alignment for the new passenger rail service would share the current freight lines owned by BNSF and Union Pacific, said Jim Souby, chairman of the state's passenger rail commission. 

The commission has been granted federal funds to generate computer models to understand whether passenger trains could share the existing rail lines and not interrupt freight service, he said. There are points where the rail lines share a single track and those choke points would have to be addressed, he said.

Union Pacific and BNSF already share rail lines with passenger trains in other parts of the country, Souby said. 

"This is not a mystery to them," he said. 

Representatives of both rail companies are members of the state commission, which has already established that support for a commuter line is widespread with 85% of those surveyed saying they support the project and 61% saying they would pay a sales tax to finance it, according to a poll of 600 people along the Front Range. 

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