Mike Lawrence: Riding rails in the Rockies

Idea of a passenger train to Denver picking up steam

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Read about the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, and efforts to create a statewide passenger train system, on the Web at www.rangerxpress....

Mike Lawrence

Call Mike Lawrence at 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com.

— I wish I had more time to write this column, but I gotta run - the 5:30 p.m. train to Denver is boarding at the Steamboat Depot. I've got a window seat booked in the coach car, a few crossword puzzles to pass the time and tickets for a show at the Fillmore on Colfax tonight. Rabbit Ears Pass is a mess in all this wind and snow, but the clear railroad tracks should be smooth sailing.

Ah, if only what I just wrote were true.

Seriously - wouldn't a passenger train to Denver be the coolest thing since a combo ski pass to Copper Mountain and Winter Park?

And it might, just might, actually happen one day. Although longtime locals have heard this tune before, including about 11 years ago when Union Pacific resoundingly derailed a passenger train proposal, Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush thinks things could be different this time down the tracks.

"It's not just lip service about multi-modal transportation anymore," Mitsch Bush said. "Eleven years ago, we didn't have the money, and we didn't have the buy-in from so many various groups. Now, I think it's a very different situation."

On Tuesday, Mitsch Bush and fellow commissioners Nancy Stahoviak and Doug Monger agreed to give $5,000 in both 2007 and 2008 to the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, a group working to establish a statewide passenger train system that would include high-speed commuter rail along the Front Range from Casper, Wyo., to Albuquerque, N.M., and along I-70 from Denver International Airport to Utah, with side routes along the way to mountain communities such as Steamboat Springs.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has designated nearly $1.25 million for a feasibility study, provided the Rail Authority can raise about $311,000 in matching funds. So far, more than 20 municipalities including Aspen, Aurora, Boulder County, Colorado Springs, Clear Creek County and Summit County have pledged or contributed funding.

Mitsch Bush said Eagle County decided not to contribute to the Rail Authority.

"They don't want a train running through Vail," Monger quipped.

Although Routt County's funding is contingent on further development of plans for the study, Stahoviak said contributing is a solid investment.

"If it only costs us $5,000 a year to find out what comes out of this, and to participate in the discussions, I don't see a downside," she said. "We need to keep the option open for passenger rail service in Routt County. Who knows what's going to happen in the future."

According to the Rail Authority, the Colorado portion of the Rocky Mountain region could generate 26 million annual commuter trips by 2030. Couple that with the ever-rising cost of gas, and suddenly different ways of getting from A to B - trains, hot-air balloons, llama caravans, whatever - start looking pretty good.

But all the talk about trains won't matter a bit if Union Pacific isn't on board.

Mitsch Bush, who is vice chairwoman of the state's Northwest Colorado Transportation Planning Region, said the Rail Authority is offering improvements to Tennessee Pass as a hefty bargaining chip to Union Pacific. The high-altitude, south-central Colorado pass is consistently a "terrible bottleneck" for the railroad industry, Mitsch Bush said, and could greatly benefit from state-funded improvements.

"That's one of the reasons Union Pacific could cooperate," said Mitsch Bush, adding she has no doubt the Rail Authority will conduct the feasibility study.

The Rail Authority hopes to place a statewide railroad tax district on the ballot in November 2008.

But don't dust off your conductor hat yet.

"I think this is a pipe dream, myself," Monger said of a passenger train from Routt County to Denver. "It'll never happen in our lifetime."

If it does, book me a window seat.

Comments

Elizabeth Rawlings 7 years, 7 months ago

Yes! Hope it happens. Way to go Diane! Mike, you are a tease. :)

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bolter 7 years, 7 months ago

Rail service on existing rails to other places in Colorado? Next thing you'll want roundabouts! Both are more efficient, both work, but they aren't AMERICAN. Maybe if the locomotive looked like a Hummer....

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HolySmoke 7 years, 7 months ago

Bolter..you are so right. This goes right in hand with why Vail wants no part of this. I don't believe that it has anything to do with a train running through their valley. The train could be in a tunnel allowing wildlife to pass over, be noise and maintenance free, etc. The reason they don't want a train is because people who wear fur coats while skiing won't be the ones riding the train and the people who will be riding the train are not the type of people Vail wants visiting their elitist resort

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