Front Range Rail bill signed, planning process begins

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PUEBLO, Colo. — After decades of discussion, a Front Range Passenger Rail line has taken the first substantial step towards coming to fruition.

Governor Jared Polis signed a bipartisan bill Wednesday to create the Front Range Passenger Rail District, creating a format for regional leadership and potential funding sources for the program.

“This bill sets into motion action, rather than just words because people have been talking about Front Range Rail for decades,” Gov. Polis said at the bill signing ceremony in front of the Pueblo Union Depot.

The district will be comprised of all districts on or near the I-25 Corridor with local governments have representatives on the district The bill sets requirements that any sales tax cannot exceed $0.08 on every $10 and the railway must compete with highway travel speeds.

“Ultimately, you have two things you have to show people,” Gov. Polis said. “One is: can I get you there faster? The second: can I get you there cheaper. Cheaper than your gas cost, cheaper than your vehicle maintenance and operating costs. so if we can get the faster and cheaper, the ridership is there.”

The ridership, Gov. Polis’s surmises, will come particularly as an alternative to congested traffic that plagues nearly the entire span of Colorado, but particularly from it’s population hubs from Colorado Springs north through Fort Collins.

The options are open for what kind of train it will be, but likely a train that can operate on existing railways at highway speeds.

“We’re not ruling out new technologies, they’re just more costly. We know that at a much lower cost, wee can implement medium speed rail, 60 to 70 miles per hour.” the Governor said.

When it comes to rail, speed can be very reliant on cost. Because nearly all of passenger rail lines operate on freight rail tracks, speeds are limited and so is availability. Freight rail hosts are federally required to give priority to passenger lines, but its been hotly debated how often that occurs.

The answer to solving the cost issue could come from the federal government and it’s train enthusiast-in-chief, President Joe Biden. Biden has called for massive investments into the nation’s rail network.

“What we’re proposing is the federal government supply 100 percent of capital funding for local infrastructure needs for corridors just like the Front Range Rail,” said Robert Eaton, the senior director for government affairs for Amtrak, the national passenger rail line for the United States.

The proposal is part of the routine re-authorization Amtrak goes through every five years. The funding proposals are included in the legislation that must pass through the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of representatives.

The proposal also asks Congress for a five-year period of federal government funding for the operating the service, through Amtrak.

“Then, ween off the federal subsidy and allow this [Front Range Rail District] to raise enough revenue to pay the annual operating cost for the service,” Eaton said.

The funding would, in all likelihood, come through grants to local rail districts or rail authorities. Eaton says the grants that have been submitted for the Southwest Chief Express that runs from Pueblo to La Junta have been very successful in being filled.

The bill to create the district had bipartisan support, though not every one is convinced that rail is the way to aleve congestion. The Colorado Springs City Council, though the El Paso County Board of Commissioners opposed the bill.

“We have so much to look at today before we got to a light rail option, Here in the city of Colorado Springs, we don’t really have a carpool approach. Not an extensive use of carpooling for people commuting to Denver,” Stan VanderWerf, the chair of the board said.

VanderWerf believes that there is a newfound opportunity over the past year—through working from home. Combined with carpooling, he says its feasible to take enough cars off the road to east congestion on I-25.

He’s also concerned about plans that peg a single station for Colorado Springs, in the downtown area. Combined with a concentration of people in the northeast area of the city away from downtown, he says it’s just moving the congestion problem.

“People have to drive in from other parts of the city to use it. Then, you create different congestion problems,” VanderWerf said.

Gov. Polis, however, is convinced that the congestion problems have enough people fed up with the road and are open to a commute that involves less stress than sitting behind the wheel in traffic.

“People just want convenience and if the planning leads to a cheaper, convenient option, and I am confident it will, Front Range Rail will be a huge success,” he said.

The timeline is somewhat vague as the District will need members appointed to its Rail Authority Board (which will come from the aforementioned local government appointments). In a previous press briefing on Front Range Rail, commission member Sal Pace expected the entire system to be connected in about a decade.

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