Happy birthday to RTD’s light rail, which launched 25 years ago Monday in Denver.
From a 5.3-mile stretch has grown an eight-line system, soon to be nine, with 71 stations and 88 miles of track.
The trains leave Colorado at a crossing. The future could be roads, rail, or more of each.
Long-time residents know all-too-well the promise of intercity passenger rail to connect with RTD and Mountain Metropolitan Transit in Colorado Springs. Someday, visionaries have told us for decades, trains will whisk us from Fort Collins to Pueblo and all points along the 177-mile stretch.
President Barack Obama would get it done, optimists hoped, after Congress allocated nearly $11 billion for prospective rail projects. Wish-list maps included Colorado’s Front Range.
“The projects have gone mostly nowhere,” a New York Times news article explained on Aug. 6, 2014.
The Gazette’s editorial board expressed excitement in 2017 about a Fort-Collins-based company that identified Colorado Springs as the likely location for a $25 million, 3-mile test link of a high-speed train. The plan fizzled.
That same year locals heard about Virgin Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles-based company planning a system of passenger pods moving through pneumatic tubes in Colorado. Pie, meet Sky.
Just last month, members of the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission spoke of something more likely: a possible 2020 ballot measure to fund passenger rail.
Trains might culturally and economically enhance life in Front Range communities. They would put urban amenities of Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins within easier reach of millions.
We love to dream. Ozzy Osbourne might say we listen to preachers, we listen to fools, we watch all the dropouts who make their own rules.
As such, a decade ago The Gazette’s editorial board hosted transportation scholar Randal O’Toole of the Denver-based Independence Institute. O’Toole warned against our enthusiasm for passenger trains, calling them an outdated model. Consumers would increasingly reject trains for new and emerging options. If not a preacher, fool or dropout, O’Toole was a Debbie Downer for sure.
Cars would drive themselves, he explained. With technical precision, they would enhance safety and reduce congestion. Eye roll. Weeks later in 2010, a driverless car wiped the smirk off our faces by transcending the switchbacks of Pikes Peak.
O’Toole spoke of public car kiosks and a ride-sharing culture that seemed a bit out there. He promised unforeseen innovation would further reduce demand for trains.
Sadly, in a romantic sense, one cannot deny developments that support what O’Toole predicted. Colorado has never had more state-of-the-art passenger rail and so much population. Yet RTD ridership, on all mass transit modes, is in disturbing decline.
Total ridership of 103.4 million in 2014-2015 dropped to 97.6 million during 2017-2018. The decline comes despite a major new rail line to Denver International Airport and a 20% increase in population since the 2010 census.
RTD wants the public to share ideas for keeping mass transit relevant.
“The landscape is changing,” explained a Sept. 2 press release, launching “reimagine RTD” five days before light rail’s birthday. The statement said topics for discussion should include “ride-sharing services” and the future of “autonomous vehicles.” No one can laugh at O’Toole, the cool new Ozzy Osbourne. He warned us: Don’t go off the rails on a crazy train.
Before committing billions to more rail, Coloradans need to decide if the investment fits a quickly changing landscape. In our hearts, we hope it does. In our minds, we fear it may not. Colorado should proceed with plans that make sense. Crazy, but that’s how it goes.