Rail Roaded

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

It was in the 1920s when Dwight D. Eisenhower first thought to connect the nation by road. But people weren't ready for it. They said it couldn't be done, and it was 1956 before the country embarked on building an interstate highway system under then-President Eisenhower.

Briggs likes to remind people that the interstate highway system was the country's second interstate system. The first, of course, was the railroad, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. With the interstate highway and the jet engine both on the scene 100 years later, passenger rail became obsolete. Today, the nation's highways are clogged, and the only airport in the country with any capacity to grow is DIA. In the next 100 years -- as the U.S. population grows to 600 million -- the country is going to need three interstate systems. "And that's what I'm working for, is to reinvent a passenger rail system in the state of Colorado," Briggs says.

When he started at RTD, Briggs didn't understand the total advantages of transit. Now he hopes he can get across what he's learned. The numbers alone speak volumes. The state's highway system was built for a population of 3.5 million. Today there are 4.5 million people, and the state highway system has been breaking down for years. Meanwhile, Colorado is growing at a rate three times faster than the country as a whole. "What's going to happen in the next 100 years?" he asks. "If we just double, that's 9 million people. What happened to our ability to get around when we got to 4.5 million? Commute times doubled or tripled. If we grow at the rate we have been, that's 18 million people. How do we expand the highway four or five times?

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.

"With rail, you double the cars and you add a double deck. You have the capacity to grow. And that's what we have to do. What we put in place today will last 100 years."

The federal government has begun to think about the country's transportation needs for the next 100 years. In fact, lawmakers are for the first time framing the dialogue of transportation appropriations in the context of an interstate system, including road, air and rail. Briggs doesn't see why Colorado couldn't be the state to lead the country in developing a high-speed rail system that defines high speeds as up to 124 miles per hour. Already, Colorado has a request pending with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation that the Rocky Mountain Corridor -- from Casper to Albuquerque along I-25 and DIA to Dotsero along I-70 -- be chosen for the nation's eleventh and last High Speed Rail Corridor. Such a designation would give Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico access to federal rail dollars. In addition, the Wyoming legislature has pledged $260,000 to the RMRA's feasibility study, and Briggs has raised funds exceeding the $311,000 local match.

Today's political climate could be right for rail to happen. Ritter campaigned on a commitment to a multi-modal transportation system and a promise to convene a blue ribbon panel that would examine funding mechanisms for transportation and the way in which those projects are prioritized.

Ritter's Colorado Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel will make its recommendations by the end of 2007, and the governor says he hopes the RMRA will give input to the group. "What we don't want to do is step on each other here," he says. "We don't want the blue ribbon commission that I'm putting together to have one sense about how we move people up and down the I-70 corridor and another group who wants to put a competing alternative on the table. We really need to, I think, ultimately build the kind of consensus and the kind of coalition that we built with Referendum C."

The state has and will continue to see a decline in highway user trust-fund dollars, as well as gas tax receipts. CDOT, by its own projections, will be underfunded by $50 billion over the next 25 years just trying to maintain existing infrastructure if the state continues to rely on those revenue sources. Meanwhile, in the metro area, Ritter says the state has spent over $100 million on environmental impact statements in the last five years.

"So we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater," Ritter explains. "It's important for us to look at things like rail corridors, but at the same time, we don't want that to be the only consideration. The conversation has to be about how we fund transportation infrastructure statewide and all parts of transportation infrastructure, including highways, regional airports, freight rail, commuter rail."

It's 2030. You pack up and head to Union Station. You have an annual train pass for your family, and the money you save on gas has allowed you more weekend trips and longer vacations in the mountains, as well as Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. You have nothing to lug with you today, though, because this isn't a vacation. You're just going to ski for the day, and you rent a locker for your family's skis and boards at your favorite resort. And even if you feel like checking out a different mountain today, the buses move fast and comfortably between resorts and towns and the train station. It's not like you won't have time to explore. You'll be in Frisco in 45 minutes.

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