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Denver Transportation, Part Two: Front Range Rail

Utah's FrontRunner Train.

One of the alternative routes under consideration in the Interregional Connecticity Study.

New Mexico Department of Transportation's Rail Runner.

While Utah and New Mexico have commuter rail up and running, Colorado works to set a vision in stone.
This is the second feature in a three-part series covering the future of transportation in Denver. Last week: Car sharing. Next week: Bike sharing and B-cycle.

While Denver often lands on national top 10 lists for light rail, the accolades largely stem from what's to come. The $7 billion expansion of RTD light rail known as FasTracks represents the largest investment of its kind by any U.S. city.
 
But from a regional commuter-rail perspective, Colorado is years behind Utah and New Mexico.
 
Paralleling I-15 along Utah's Wasatch Front, the FrontRunner train just opened a southern leg to Provo. While it's not technically high-speed rail (the threshold speed is 100 miles per hour), it can get you from Ogden to Provo, about 90 miles, in less than 2 hours.
 
In New Mexico, the Rail Runner connects Albuquerque and Santa Fe along I-25. It takes about 2.5 hours to travel the 97-mile route, and the trains top out at 79 miles per hour.

In Colorado, commuter-rail plans have yet to make it off of the drawing board.
 
The Necessary Next Step to Rail
 
David Krutsinger is Project Manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation's Interregional Connectivity Study (ICS). The $2.8 million study received $1 million in federal funding and “is a necessary step before Colorado could be put on the federal high-speed map,” says Krutsinger.
 
“We're behind our neighbors because we haven't had political agreement,” says Krutsinger. “We've been broken up, politically and regionally. In Utah, the communities have really come together.” 
 
Geography also helped: There was only one possible route between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front. “That sort of forced their hand,” says Krutsinger. In New Mexico, former Gov. Bill Richardson “had the vision and really drove the process,” he adds.
“We're adding almost the equivalent of a Denver metro area in 20 years," says CDOT's David Krutsinger. "People say transit is expensive. Highways going forward are also expensive. It's a rock-and-a-hard-place situation.”

“Population growth is going to be good enough to push us in the right direction,” says Krutsinger, noting that the Front Range population of 4 million in 2012 is projected to top 6 million by 2035. “We're adding almost the equivalent of a Denver metro area in 20 years.”
 
“We're out of right of way on the highways," he adds. "People say transit is expensive. Highways going forward are also expensive. It's a rock-and-a-hard-place situation.”
 
Part of the problem is perception. “The public sees an open road and an open transit vehicle in different ways,” says Krutsinger. “An open road is a good thing. An empty transit vehicle is a waste of taxpayer money.”
 
Gas tax in Colorado has remained a static 40 cents per gallon for over 20 years. "In the early 1990s, 40 cents was about one-third of what you paid for gas," says Krutsinger. “Now it's much less.”
 
More gas-tax revenue would help cover big-ticket budgets associated with high-speed or commuter rail. The working number for a high-speed north-south train connecting Fort Collins and Pueblo is $7 billion, says Krutsinger, and $15 billion for an east-west rail line from DIA to Eagle County.
 
In March 2013, meetings from Fort Collins to Pueblo will focus on possible alignments and technologies to develop a plan. The RMRA route went east of I-25 through Black Forest, and locals objected. From Northglenn to Fort Collins, there's debate whether the tracks should follow I-25 or U.S. 287. Then in metro Denver, there are questions about how to go around the city and how to connect with a potential I-70 train.
 
One discarded grand vision moved the freight railroads east to free up the existing north-south railroad line for passenger trains. “We can't use the tracks,” laments Krutsinger. “But can we be next to the tracks? Can we use the CDOT right-of-way along I-25? Moving through metro Denver, do you go through downtown or around the beltway?”
 
Go Big or Start Simple?Utah's FrontRunner Train.
 
“What we've learned from Utah and New Mexico, it's really important to set the fare appropriately," says Krutsinger. "That's a political decision.” New Mexico set theirs around 14 cents per mile, and subsequent shortfalls have led to cutbacks in service and something of a political firestorm.
 
Utah set the fare at nearly double that, about 25 cents per mile. “They seem to be doing well,” says Krutsinger. “They have a vision. Although Utah is socially conservative on many dimensions, they're progressive on how much their communities think and act together.”
 
Another model is California's “go big” approach, Krutsinger adds. An 800-mile, $70 billion rail network with top speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour, the system will link L.A. And San Francisco by 2029 if all goes to plan. But the critics are many.
 
In Colorado, the concept of going big has yet to truly enter the conversation, says Krutsinger. “It remains to be seen if they're going to be like Utah or have a New Mexico experience, where you take two steps forward and one step back.”
 
Don Ulrich, VP at CH2M HILL in Englewood, is consulting on the ICS and also provides oversight for the FrontRunner train in Utah. He says the best alignment is the one that maximizes ridership, and that is primarily a factor of speed. “The faster it goes, the better the ridership,” says Ulrich. “The better the ridership, the better chance of actually building it.”
 
“You have to start simple,” says CH2M HILL's Don Ulrich. “If the political forces are such we have to have a mag-lev that goes 250 miles per hour, it's going to implode under its own weight.”
With an I-25-aligned train south of Denver, Castle Rock and Colorado Springs are trouble spots because of the number of crossings that would require an overpass or a tunnel. Overpasses cost at least $100 million per mile, double the cost of rail at ground level. Tunnels cost about $200 million per mile.
 
Ulrich says I-25 is the obvious alignment north of Denver, as U.S. 287 has more than 100 crossings between Longmont and Fort Collins. “It's just not an appropriate alignment for high-speed rail,” he explains. “Generally you think of high-speed rail going around communities rather than through them.”
 
 “You have to start simple,” Ulrich adds. “People have to realize you don't buy a 16-year-old a Corvette or a BMW as their first car. If the political forces are such we have to have a mag-lev that goes 250 miles per hour, it's going to implode under its own weight.”
 
After cultivating ridership, a stripped-down Front Range line could be upgraded, as has been the vision in Utah. “They're very pragmatic,” says Ulrich. “They're willing to do things like buy used locomotives. It's not the sexiest system in the world, but it functions.” 
 
“Every project I've seen there is ahead of schedule and under budget,” he adds of Utah. “They're just damn good.”
 
Ulrich says FrontRunner officials had the luxury of negotiating with the railroads over lesser-used tracks; Colorado's railroads “are at or over capacity now” and officials are subsequently reluctant to cede right-of-way, he adds. 
 
“If Utah can implement something for 88 miles for $1.5 billion, this area should be able to do something similar,” says Ulrich. “If we could build it for $20 million to $30 million a mile, Fort Collins to Pueblo, it could happen.”

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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