Analysis: High-speed rail a wistful dream or 21st-century solution?

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Is bringing high-speed passenger rail to the Front Range a wistful dream of railroad buffs or a 21st-century solution to congested roadways? Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace and Colorado Springs City Councilor Jill Gaebler are firmly in the latter camp.

Both elected officials are members of the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, which submitted a legislative proposal for the development of a Front Range passenger rail system from Trinidad to Fort Collins to the Colorado State Legislature Dec. 1.

“We are working towards bringing Colorado into the 21st Century so we can compete with any state in the country for jobs and economic development,” Pace said. “Major employers are demanding that communities have mobility alternatives.”

“I believe high speed passenger rail is the only sustainable solution for transportation connecting the most populated region of Colorado. Citizens need to know they can travel up and down the Front Range in a timely manner, and this plan will achieve that goal,” Gaebler said.

The proposal calls for the state to make an initial commitment of $9.2 million to staff up, engage in public outreach and create a service development plan that defines alignment/route, station locations, service levels, technology and estimates capital and operating costs.

While current estimates are only approximate, it’s clear that the 260-mile Trinidad-to-Fort Collins system that the commission proposes will be costly.

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The commission estimates that single track, conventional speed (less than 80 mph top speed) diesel trains providing all-day service would cost $27 million per mile. Mostly double track, high-speed (up to 180 mph) electric trains providing all-day service would run $80 million per mile. Annual system operating costs are thought to range from $100 million to 500 million.

As envisioned, it would take as much as 15 years and $20.8 billion to build the high-speed system, while a traditional Diesel system could be created within 10 years for $7.02 billion.

Clearly, there are lots of questions surrounding the proposal, including fare structure, alignments and station location, regulatory environment, precise costs and potential funding options. Those questions and others were summarized in an overview of  “relevant issues, questions, and considerations” discussed by the commission in support of the submittal.

The raison d’être for Front Range passenger train development is pretty clear — congestion mitigation on I-25 and easier commuting along the Front Range corridor. That’s an attractive prospect, but is it a likely outcome? Randal O’Toole, a scholar at the Independence Institute, has his doubts. Writing about transit funding earlier this year, O’Toole compared Denver’s sales tax funded Regional Transportation District to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“RTD’s budget is $2.5 billion, and it moves around 3 percent of daily commuters,” O’Toole noted. “The Colorado Department of Transportation is responsible for all of the roads that carry the other 97 percent of commuters (and even some of RTD’s 3 percent when they opt to drive instead of take transit), yet CDOT’s annual budget is roughly $1.3 billion, around half that of RTD.”

O’Toole also offered skeptical assessments of some recent passenger rail projects, including one in New Mexico.

“New Mexico spent tens of millions on a train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that carries just 1,700 daily round trips,” O’Toole asserted, characterizing it and other such projects as “a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Costs aside, another emerging transportation system may offer many of the benefits of passenger rail at less public cost.

Writing in the New York Times on November 16, Neal Boudette described a relaxing trip (mostly on Interstate highways) that he took in a Cadillac CT-6 equipped with GM’s “Super Cruise” driver assistance system.

“When my trip ended, I had covered 378 miles,” Boudette wrote. “My hands were on the wheel for no more than 25 of them.” A week earlier, GM CEO Mary Barra said that the company was “quarters, not years” away from being able to deploy fully autonomous cars.

Boudette described being in a comfortable, zenlike state while traveling down the Interstate at 75 mph. If Barra is right, I-25 commuters could enjoy productive stress-free driving in the near future, as autonomous vehicles become widely available. As longtime train skeptic John Caldara wrote in 2016, “The real magic of the Boulder-Denver [Bus Rapid Transit] system is that private buses, carpoolers, buses, taxis, Ubers and soon driverless cars can also get out of the traffic jam and fly at full speed on that bus lane. And there is still excess capacity to boot. So, single occupants can pay a toll and buy their way out of traffic without slowing the high-speed transit. Not only does this offset the costs, but it frees up the regular lanes for everyone else. … Those of us who live and work along the U.S. 36 corridor will always have a guaranteed congestion-free lane whenever we want it. The rest of you can enjoy your 19th-century train.”

Conservative naysayers such as O’Toole and Caldara now have more national heft, making federal support for Colorado passenger rail problematic. As Colorado Springs native Michael Byrne wrote in Vice, six major rail transit projects in New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio were sidetracked by budget-minded Republican governors.

Their actions may have indirectly benefited Denver’s $487 million Union Station redevelopment project, which secured $300 million in federal funding support, including $155 million in Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing.

Will the state legislature agree to appropriate a few million bucks for an extensive feasibility study? That appears to depend on whether the tight-fisted Republicans who control the Colorado Senate are willing to clamber on our 21st-century Rock Island Rocket.

All Abooooard!