ColoRail’s Vision Statement for Front Range Passenger Rail
- Fast, frequent and safe passenger rail services
- Connect Front Range communities
- Promote economic development and
- Enable single day round-trips for business and pleasure
Colorado needs to supplement its road network with passenger railroad trains running between Ft. Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. A Front Range passenger rail system, with connecting transit services, would provide much needed capacity growth, while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the mobility of Coloradoans, and providing major economic stimulus to the cities and communities served. It could relieve congestion on highways, making them work better for automobile and bus drivers and future smart vehicles. (See our vision map.)
Colorado is one of the fastest growing states in terms of population and economic opportunity. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs predicts that the state’s population will increase from 5 million in 2015 to about 8 million people in 2040. 6.2 million of these people will live along the Front Range. Today, only Interstate 25 links the cities. It is often gets severely congested, and therefore slow. I-25 will be insufficient to meet the projected population growth in the decades to come.
We need to plan to meet this transportation challenge. In order to help launch this urgent planning effort for Colorado, ColoRail has developed a vision and strategy for a rail component. Given the extensive lead times for projects of this magnitude, history tells us the outreach and planning must begin now!
Why Passenger Rail?
Most other industrialized countries have come to understand these principles:
- Steel wheels on steel rails have enormous capacity. A dedicated two-track rail service has the same capacity as 14 lanes of highway.
- Passenger rail is less subject to disruption by weather compared to highways and air travel.
- Passenger rail is potentially much faster than rubber tires on pavement.
- Trains move more people and more goods using much less energy than cars and trucks, and far less than airplanes.
- Passenger rail is safer than automobile travel.
- Trains create immense economic benefits in nearby communities.
- Trains “leave the driving to us”, which means passengers can watch the scenery instead of the road, accomplish job tasks, read a good book, play a video or game, socialize, and eat and drink.
A beautiful history and a critical economic and mobility choice for the future
America, including Colorado, once had an excellent passenger rail system. It took you where you wanted to go, at reasonable speed, with good reliability, at competitive prices. Those trains were run by private railroad companies who competed with each other for travelers’ dollars. In Colorado, you could catch several trains a day from Denver to Ft. Collins and Cheyenne, to Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
In the mid-20th century, America’s federal, state, and local governments decided to spend vast amounts of public money on highways and airports. This created severe competition with the private railroads and killed the profitability of passenger trains. The private railroads got out of the business and Congress created Amtrak in 1970 to maintain what was left of the passenger rail system. Unfortunately, Congress has never funded Amtrak at a level high enough to create an efficient, quality nationwide service.
While everyone today appreciates the convenience and comfort of our modern automobiles, and we expect to be able to fly across the continent in mere hours, these benefits have come with significant economic, social, and environmental costs. Other nations who invested in highways, airports, AND railroads gained significant benefit from the better balance.
In recent years, many U.S. states and cities have implemented new commuter and intercity rail systems and are upgrading their existing services with higher speeds and expansion. Some have been able to leverage funding for the services by tapping into the increased property values from development surrounding stations. Their leaders have recognized the twin values of rail to citizen mobility and economic development.
Colorado faces a critical choice: Will we try to meet the challenge of our growth through expansion of I-25 to six, eight, or twelve lanes? Or will we invest in a more diverse transportation system?
Beyond the simple fact of our rapidly increasing population, other factors point to a need for Front Range travel options. The number of individuals in Colorado who are 65 and over will increase from 555,000 in 2010 to 1,243,000 in 2030. Many of them cannot or will not drive cars.
The cost of a car, its fuel, and maintenance is a significant burden to lower income people. Public transit can serve them better. For college students and military personnel the equation is often similar. Furthermore, the transit option is safer for all concerned.
Business people who use the good train system of the Northeast Corridor appreciate the opportunity to work while moving. Many people who daily ride RTD busses and trains do the same.
Another trend favoring rail is changing choices by young adults. The “millennials” generation is much less interested in driving than were “baby boomers”. It’s possible that America’s love affair with the car is waning just a bit.
These factors indicate that there will be a large population in need of more diverse mobility options.
What About Money?
In a recent study, the Colorado Department of Transportation has estimated that building a feasible passenger rail corridor from Fort Collins to Denver would cost about $1.2 billion dollars. This is a huge amount but it is not out of order when you think of the $1 billion dollar upgrade that is planned for a short stretch of Interstate 70 in eastern Denver.
CDOT’s assessment of transportation options from Denver north to Ft. Collins estimates that passenger rail costs are about $25 million dollars a mile. That’s a lot, but it is not more than highway expansion to achieve the same capacity. So a conservative cost estimate puts the price tag for Front Range passenger rail at $4.2 billion. Widening I-25 would cost roughly the same, but with far less reliability, much higher energy consumption, lower safety, and ultimately the same problems with highway traffic congestion, with or without smarter cars.
Certainly, Colorado and America are not going to give up on cars and roads. But to meet the growth in our desire and need for intercity travel, rail effectively competes financially. So a $5 billion Front Range passenger rail system would be a manageable, worthwhile transportation cost for Colorado, particularly with federal, innovative state and local, and possibly private sector investment.
In addition to the mobility options a strong rail and transit alternative offers citizens, the personal economic benefits can be large. The American Automobile Association estimates that owning a car costs between $8,000 and $11,000 per year. Most of that money leaves the community in payments for energy, insurance, financing and repair parts. Removing one car from each owner with two or more cars returns a great deal of that money to the individual and the regional economy. When you couple this possibility with the very probable commercial benefits from train stations, it becomes easy to understand why local and regional economies with passenger rail service thrive.
Front Range passenger rail is not only an attractive alternative for travelers, it is an economy booster by increasing productivity and value in the corridor. With lead times of 15 to 25 years for large rail projects, the time to begin serious planning is now!