Rail Roaded

Finding a solution to I-70 traffic has been one long, strange trip. But the end could be in sight.

"What's not an alternative is not making a decision," he adds. "We need to make a decision and move on."

Toward that end, CDOT has hired a contractor to lead the Context Sensitive Design portion of the highway expansion and invited a representative of Clear Creek County's choosing to join in that process. It puts Cynthia Neely in a difficult position, because she's adamant that the CSS process should have been used to select an alternative for I-70, not just to design that alternative after CDOT had already made its decision.

"So while we are participating, and pleased to participate, if the decision is one that pays no regard for the environment or community values, the fact that you're going to be nice about implementing it is not going to change the determination to not let a bad decision stand," she says.

Bob Briggs is the engine behind a 2008 election on statewide rail service.
Mark Manger
Bob Briggs is the engine behind a 2008 election on statewide rail service.
Harry Dale has a one-track mind when it comes to trains on I-70.
Mark Manger
Harry Dale has a one-track mind when it comes to trains on I-70.

Clear Creek County is prepared to sue the state if CDOT selects six-lane highway widening as its alternative in the final PEIS, regardless of whether that highway would preserve space for transit. "I think there will be severe problems with the PEIS, and hopefully the new administration will dig into it," Dale says. "It's so ripe for litigation right now, if they don't, it will be held up forever in court."

For now, the last word on the PEIS belongs to Governor Ritter, who says he's yet to make up his mind about CDOT's preferred alternative. "The people that I most trust in, I haven't sat down and had a long conversation with them about that document or about that alternative," he says. "What I kept hearing is that Governor Owens's administration had put a certain amount of money on the table to be spent over a certain period of time -- all of which would involve highway widening. There are a lot of really good transportation experts in this state who I'm not sure have been heard in the discussion to date. I do think transit should be on the table."

Bob Briggs takes the podium before Boulder County's three commissioners to give his familiar pitch -- the same call for support he'll give to a total of 122 counties, 54 cities and 400 organizations before he's through.

After the 2004 election -- when Briggs, a Republican, lost his run for the legislature -- he got a call from RTD general manager Cal Marsella. He recalled how Briggs, while on the RTD board from 1998 to 2002, had often said the state should have a passenger rail system along the Front Range, from Wyoming to New Mexico. With FasTracks having just been approved, Marsella thought the time might be right to pursue that project. As Briggs began to travel and promote his passenger rail idea, he quickly found that the people he talked to were just as, if not more, interested in I-70. Thus, it only made sense to add that corridor to his state rail plan.

In 2005, out of the small pot Referendum C created for transit projects, Briggs's group was able to secure $1.25 million for a rail-feasibility study. In order to receive that money, CDOT required that an intergovernmental agreement be created. The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority was born, with Clear Creek County, Monument, Aspen, Larimer County, Arapahoe County and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority as its first members. CDOT also required that the RMRA come up with a local match of $311,000.

Briggs told the Boulder County Commission that he had a commitment of about $140,000 from the six jurisdictions that have joined the RMRA. In the coming weeks, he planned to raise the rest of the money, finalize a contract with CDOT and travel to Washington, D.C., to ask for federal matching dollars to fund the complete review, which will cost $4 million. "Our goal is to have the study completed by first quarter of 2008, and in November ask the voters to approve a rail system."

Briggs then asked the county commissioners if they would join the RMRA and contribute $50,000.

The gentlemen looked perplexed.

"This seems like a statewide project," said Tom Mayer. "Why wouldn't CDOT be taking this on themselves?"

"Have you had any discussions with the new governor about changing CDOT's approach on this?" asked Will Toor.

"It is a bit odd that local governments would be asked to pay a share that should be born by the state as a whole," said Ben Pearlman.

"The state transportation department needs to make a transition from being all about highways to actually being a transportation department," Toor added. "I really want to see the effort first now with the new administration, to approach them and say this is something that should be funded by the state."

Later that day, Briggs reported to the RMRA that he expected Boulder County would join them, though the commissioners wanted to talk to the governor first. They think CDOT should be supporting the study, he relayed.

Harry Dale rolled his eyes and sighed.

Cynthia Neely didn't have gray hair when this all started. It's a standing joke among her transit co-conspirators. "I taught world history," she says. "I do know ideas take a long time to grow."

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