Front Range Rail gaining steam behind Amtrak and new legislation

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COLORADO SPRINGS — As the seemingly endless I-25 Gap Project still is at least 18 months from finishing, state lawmakers made the most significant push yet to create an alternative commute along the corridor. A bipartisan bill proposes creating a special tax district made up of counties along and near the I-25 corridor to oversee and potentially fund a Front Range passenger rail system.

It comes as Amtrak announced plans to partner with the state to implement a Front Range Rail line, part of its plan to expand to 160 new destinations.

Both moves follow the Biden Administration’s focus to invest in rail infrastructure, as part of $2 Trillion spending plan the White House has been pushing for throughout the spring.

“Investing [tax payer] transportation dollars for passenger rail is another mode is probably is a better use of their funding than continuing to add lanes to I-25 and we all know we can’t add any more lanes to I-25 anyway,” said Jill Gaebler.

Gaebler is also a member of the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission and chided the Gap Project for spending nearly half a billion dollars to add an express lane in each direction and “arguably those funds will do nothing to reduce congestion on I-25 or create a safer environment.”

Things like timeline, type of rail, and the speed of trains is still unknown, though the introduction of Senate Bill 238 on Friday gives some of the first parameters, outside of the limited plans released by the FRPR commission created in 2017.

The legislation, which has both republican and democratic co-sponsors, lays out a funding model that cannot exceed an eight-tenths of one percent sales tax ($0.08 on every $10) for tax payers in the district to vote on and requires that any rail plan is “competitive in terms of travel time” with interstate travel.

“Everyone agrees that the trip times need to compete with automobiles and if we’re going to make this kind of investment, we need to make it worthwhile,” said Sal Pace, a member of Commission and former democratic state representative from Pueblo.

Pace estimated it would be around a decade before passengers would be able to hop on the rail line that could travel from Pueblo north to Cheyenne, WY.

Part of the job for Amtrak and the commission will be building a rail line that entices people enough to ditch their car and leave their fate to a train. A high-speed rail system is an attractive concept but comes with a higher cost, the hurdle of gaining approval from ail corridors with multiple operators, and a game of finding which stations fit where to benefit the most people and keep an efficient travel time.

Gaebler hopes that if initial funding isn’t available in the beginning, a commuter line could be created on existing tracks with a high speed rail to be developed in the future.

Funding will drive what the train can do and how fast it will come, according to Amtrak. A Front Range Passenger Rail is coming regardless of the status of federal funding currently being debated in Washington D.C., though if it does come, the Commission and the train company are ready to put it to work.

“There’s no question that can enact something like what the President has proposed, we’ll have huge opportunities to accelerate,” said Amtrak President Stephen Gardner. “With more money, we can go faster and do more.”

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