Colorado transportation leaders on Thursday cobbled together the last of nearly $4 million needed for studies of a Front Range passenger railway that aim to assess its overarching viability.
In about two years, the resulting armload of studies on several topics could give officials at a soon-to-be-established taxing district plenty of fuel for debate, along with solidifying the basis to ask voters to kick in serious money.
Early estimates have put the cost for a starter system — likely to be operated by Amtrak in a partnership — at $1.7 billion to $2.8 billion, with as many as six trains a day running mostly on shared freight tracks connecting cities including Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins. That money could come from a mix of federal, state and local sources, including potential new district sales taxes.
During the upcoming Corridor Development Study, a mix of consultants and staff from the Colorado Department of Transportation will home in on financial and operational details, more closely evaluate ridership and funding, put together a preliminary service development plan, and analyze costs and benefits.
They also are to evaluate project phasing options and seek stakeholder input, with the goal of crafting plans that are viable not only conceptually but politically. The latter isn’t a sure bet in a region that stretches more than 200 miles and hasn’t expressed universal support, with the most vocal opposition coming from El Paso County.
The Colorado Transportation Commission on Thursday morning approved the use of $1.6 million from its reserves for the $3.9 million study effort.
The Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission already has kicked in the same amount, and the final portion comes from a $685,000 grant awarded by the Federal Railroad Administration about a year ago.
That grant was sought to study existing freight traffic on the corridor and the potential to insert passenger trains into the mix. But the rail commission and CDOT officials pushed to broaden the scope, including by adding several studies that are required by state law to be completed before the new Front Range Passenger Rail District can go to voters with a firm plan.
In June, Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 328, which created the district in all or parts of 13 counties near I-25 between the Wyoming and Mexico state lines, including all of metro Denver. Polis and regional planning groups are to appoint the district’s board by May and it will begin meeting.
In the meantime, state transportation officials hope to keep the momentum going. The new studies, likely to get underway in coming months, won’t be the final ones — farther down the line would be a federal environmental review of the project.
Earlier this year, a study of possible routes identified three that had some promise. They vary the most through Denver and points north, but the most-favored corridor would overlap with the Regional Transportation District’s unfunded B-Line extension to Boulder and Longmont. RTD and CDOT recently agreed to coordinate their planning.
“That is the first question that we will be asking: What is the desired route?” David Singer, CDOT’s passenger rail program manager, told the Transportation Commission during a briefing this week.
The route alternatives study put the initial railway cost at a fraction of a more ambitious, gold-standard buildout. That $10.7 billion system would include new dedicated double tracks for the corridor’s entire length, accommodating two dozen roundtrips each weekday that would serve a projected 6,900 riders by 2045.
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