At least a half-dozen alternatives identified for Front Range and mountain routes
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — If there’s a network of of high-speed trains criss-crossing Colorado 30 years from, it’ll be thanks to the vision and persistence of people like Harry Dale, the county commissioner from Clear Creek who has been tireless in his advocacy for 21st century transportation solutions.
Dale slipped into his current role of rail advocate almost by accident a few years ago, when an early version of an improvement plan for I-70 called for six-laning the interstate right through the heart of mountain towns like Georgetown and Idaho Springs. The vision, if you can call it that, seemed to have little regard for the natural and human environment in narrow Clear Creek Canyon.
Adding those lanes, along with needed interchanges and shoulders, would eat away big chunks of land in the canyon, where the towns are already squeezed in tightly between roads, river and steep mountain walls. It quickly became clear that was not an acceptable option for Clear Creek.
“In many places on I-70, you can’t just add lanes. “It’s constrained by the natural environment and the built environment,” Dale said.
Dale became one of the leaders of a group of I-70 corridor stakeholders who wanted to take another look at the plan and develop new alternatives, including the potential for a rail line between Denver and the mountain resort communities along the I-70 corridor.
“When we started this in 2006, we had a state administration that wanted nothing to do with rail and transit. In fact, there was no leadership to do much of anything,” Dale said.
Formation of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority to specifically study the rail option was the first step. Now, that group is close to releasing a final version of a feasibility study showing that a simple, cross-shaped system, running north-south between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and east-west between DIA and Eagle, is indeed a viable transportation alternative for the state.
“There are a whole slew of alternatives that are feasible,” Dale said, preparing to review a near-final version of the study at a Rocky Mountain Rail Authority steering committee today. The study looked at:
• The full range of high-speed rail technologies;
• Alignments capable of supporting average speeds greater than 90 mph;
• Potential station locations
• Cost-benefit ratios and operating ratios;
• Ridership and revenue levels;
• Potential economic benefits to local communities and the state;
• Levels of federal, state, and local financial support that can be expected, as well as opportunities for private financing through Public-Private Partnerships; and
• Recommended next steps
These days, a lot of people are throwing up their hands and claiming the state will never get a rail system because there is no federal or state money available. The current economy is tough, Dale acknowledged, but he said that, in order to be ready when there is money, a plan has to be in place.
Just like with highway improvements, if the environmental studies and the engineering is done, it makes it that much easier to qualify for grants and other funding sources when they are available.
“The first thing we need is a state rail plan. That’s the building block that the feds require,” Dale said.
The study points out that, to maintain consistently high speeds, tunnels may have to be used in some places along the I-70 corridor, although several alignments with grades of less than 7 percent have been identified for crossing Vail and Loveland passes.