Railroad passenger service could create a major economic impact for Pueblo and all along the Front Range, says Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who has worked for several years to make that a reality.
“It’s not just Pueblo, but Colorado Springs, Castle Rock, Fort Collins,” Pace said.
Limited service in Pueblo has been approved — with expansion a distinct possibility — and many politicians are supporting rail passenger service from Fort Collins to Trinidad.
District 46 Rep. Daneya Esgar, elected by Pueblo County voters in 2014 and ’16, is one such supporter.
Esgar co-sponsored Senate Bill 153, which passed in April and created the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission to explore passenger rail service along the Front Range and to explore the expansion of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route to Pueblo. The new group replaced a similar commission, chaired by Pace. The previous commission’s authority ended July 1.
“It’s about bringing Colorado into the 21st century,” Pace said. “As Donald Trump said, it’s a crying shame Europe’s infrastructure is ahead of ours.”
A potential stumbling block, ironically, is President Trump’s proposed budget, including a nearly 13 percent cut in the federal transportation budget next year; that means 220 cities in 23 states may lose passenger rail service, according to a study by the National Association of Rail Passengers.
Esgar brushed off the potential budget problem.
“We’re moving forward with our plan and can’t be worried about what might happen,” she said.
Last week, Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Pace to the new commission, which has until Dec. 1 to present a plan to the state Legislature that facilitates Front Range rail service along Interstate 25.
Asked if Front Range rail service will happen, Pace was noncommittal.
“It depends on two variables — who the next governor is and can we get a vote on the Senate floor,” he said. “Sometimes bills die in committee.”
Pace said it could get to a Senate vote “in a year or two.”
El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn likes the idea of rail service returning to the Pikes Peak region but questions how it can be accomplished.
“In a perfect world, who wouldn’t want to jump on the train and go anywhere on the Front Range?” Glenn said. “People are looking for multi-modal transportation options, but it always comes down to how are you going to pay for it.”
That’s part of the commission’s task.
“We have to figure out how to structure it,” Pace said. “I think we can put together a financing package that costs the state very little.”
Union Depot at the ready
A through route on Amtrak was approved last year, allowing one train car to carry passengers from Pueblo to the Amtrak connection in La Junta. Pace said the main route will eventually go from La Junta to Pueblo to Trinidad.
“We’re going to have that done,” he said. “I’d give it three years.”
Esgar says rail service could help revitalize Pueblo’s downtown.
“It would be amazing to have Pueblo be a full-service stop for Amtrak,” she said. “I think it would be a great driver, another economic boom for Pueblo. The Riverwalk really energized the downtown area, and if we had another way to get people to Pueblo — like on the train — that would be great.”
The historic Union Depot is nearly ready to serve Amtrak customers, according to Pueblo County Director of Economic Development Chris Markuson.
“It would have a sizable economic impact,” Markuson said. “It would add vibrancy to downtown and have a snowball effect that could benefit restaurants, bars and hotels. Studies show that increased pedestrian traffic and overnight stays prove to be a massive economic driver.”
Markuson sees rail service as a game-changer.
“We’ve wanted for a long time to create more economic opportunity in downtown Pueblo,” he said. “Identity change for cities takes a long time. In Denver, it took 30 years. Pueblo started in the late 1990s with the Riverwalk, which was a catalyst for change. Rail service could be the next step in changing Pueblo.”
According to a 2014 study done by Colorado State University-Pueblo professors Kevin Duncan and Michael Wakefield, the economic impact on Colorado from the Southwest Chief line of Amtrak is considerable. Even with stops only in the small towns of La Junta and Trinidad, it adds $5.7 million annually to the state’s economy, the report said, and creates about 52 jobs.
A stop in Pueblo, according to the study, would increase those numbers by about $1 million and nine jobs. Markuson said the “indirect impact is what raises eyebrows and gets us excited.
“Train travel is something from the past that is coming back,” Markuson said. “You see it in Denver with the light rail. California is investing billions in high-speed rail. The current model of sitting in traffic on I-25 is not sustainable.”
He gets no arguments from Esgar, who drives to Denver almost daily when the legislature is in session.
“I’d much rather hop on a train in downtown Pueblo and get off in downtown Denver,” she said. “I’d have two hours to get work done and wouldn’t have to stress over the traffic.”
But how realistic is passenger rail service all the way from Wyoming to New Mexico?
“I think it used to be a grandiose idea,” Esgar said, “but as we look at other options due to congested interstate traffic, I think the idea is gaining momentum.”
Will the eventual widening of I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock make rail service less attractive?
“No matter how much we widen the interstate, there will still be more people moving to Colorado, and the interstate will still be crowded,” Esgar said.
“The train will always be a great stress-free option.”