Real Estate & Construction  April 9, 2010

NoCo left waiting on high-speed rail service

The chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority said a just-released report on the feasibility of high-speed rail service in Colorado indicates Northern Colorado may be one of the last places in the state to benefit.

Harry Dale, a Clear Creek County commissioner who headed the RMRA task force over the last 18 months, said the study found high-speed rail to be a feasible mode of transportation in the state’s Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 travel corridors.

But the study also showed projected demand for the service along the Front Range north of Denver – predicted to be about 4 million riders annually in the year 2025 – was less than other routes. Dale said the route with the most promise for ridership is between Colorado Springs and Denver with an estimated 6.2 million annual riders. “The strength of the system is really in the south,” he said.

Possible routes between Denver and Denver International Airport and between Denver and Summit County each projected about 5 million riders per year.

Dale said that’s what the numbers say in 2010, but that could change.

“Those are the indications today, but all of that could change based on growth,” he said. “This is the very first step, and we may well determine a need to do that north leg sooner than later.”

Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly, who sat on the RMRA study group for a year, said he was disappointed to learn the North Front Range might be one of the last areas to be served.

“I guess the data proves what the data proves,” he said.

Donnelly said the high-speed rail concept may ultimately prove to be only a concept. “Realistically, will it ever happen? Who knows?”

But Donnelly said it’s “absolutely” critical to find ways to cope with increasing traffic congestion. “We can either fail to plan or plan to fail,” he said. “We shouldn’t take anything off the table.”

Dale said a North Front Range leg is still “ahead of going to Pueblo or going further west to Eagle County.” Extending the train to Pueblo and west of Summit County was also studied, along with possible service to Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction and Steamboat Springs, which all need further evaluation, he said.

The $1.4 million study, funded by the Colorado Department of Transportation and more than 50 local governments and transit-authority members, looked at several possible high-speed rail options. The goal was to determine if they would meet the Federal Railroad Administration’s threshold for high-speed rail feasibility standards.

Those standards include economic benefits that would exceed the costs of building the system and that such a system could operate profitably without government subsidies.

Dale said the study revealed those criteria could be met in Colorado. “High-speed rail can provide a faster, more reliable travel option within and between mountain communities and areas up and down the Front Range,” he said.

$33 million in benefits

The study indicated the system, which would cost an estimated $21.13 billion to build, would generate $33 billion in benefits including jobs, increased property values and a better quality of life for travelers tired of fighting increasingly congested interstate traffic.

“The big challenge in all of this is where do we get the capital to build all of this and get the return on the investment,” Dale said. Meeting the FRA criteria makes a Colorado high-speed system eligible for federal grants and other aid.

But the system would be funded by users once it’s up and running, with a projected 35 million passengers each year. The study said service would include two to three trains per hour in peak periods and more than 18 electric-powered trains capable of speeds of up to 220 mph per day in both the I-25 and I-70 corridors.

The study looked at several travel scenarios, including a trip from Fort Collins to Silverthorne that would take an estimated two hours and cost $48 in 2010 dollars.

Dale said a North Front Range leg of the system would likely run in the I-25 median. “For the most part, from Thornton to Fort Collins it would run in the I-25 right-of-way, depending on where that roams,” he said.

Dale said that, assuming funding can be found, the timetable for building the system would take at least 10 years for preparation for the first phase of the system and another 10 years or more to complete construction. The first phase would likely include service between Denver and DIA and between Denver and Colorado Springs.

“We’re optimistic in the report and say it could be 2020, but 2025 to 2030 may be more realistic,” he said.

“So much of this depends on leadership,” Dale aded. “Frankly, we have not had a lot of support from the governor’s office or the legislature so far. Hopefully, somebody will run with it.”

Dale said the next step is already underway. In January, CDOT received a $1.4 million federal grant to develop a state rail plan that’s slated to begin later this year, along with a local transit connectivity plan.

Once those plans are completed, Dale said the state can seek federal designation to become the nation’s 11th high-speed rail corridor.

Dale said he’s glad to have the RMRA final report behind him but admits there is so much more to do before anyone rides a high-speed train in Colorado.

The chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority said a just-released report on the feasibility of high-speed rail service in Colorado indicates Northern Colorado may be one of the last places in the state to benefit.

Harry Dale, a Clear Creek County commissioner who headed the RMRA task force over the last 18 months, said the study found high-speed rail to be a feasible mode of transportation in the state’s Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 travel corridors.

But the study also showed projected demand for the service along the Front Range north of Denver – predicted to be about 4 million riders…

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