Rail Roaded

Call it a Colorado rite of passage, or penance for getting to live in such a beautiful place. Either way, it's a familiar weekly ritual. You fly west at eighty miles per hour past Genesee, mapping out your runs for the day, dreaming of fresh powder and short lines. Then you notice brake lights before the Central City Parkway. Maybe it's one car slowing down, you tell yourself. But you know better. You slam on the brakes and drop your speed to twenty for the long stop-and-go trek to the Eisenhower Tunnel, hoping to get one run in before lunchtime.

That trip is cake compared to the ride home, when it's dark and the snow starts coming down. You stretch your eyes wide so they don't zone out to the bright beams of oncoming headlights. Your knuckles are white. Second gear helps, but you still think you might slide. An SUV flies around traffic on the shoulder. When you make it past the tunnel, you notice a car has flipped, maybe the same guy. You watch all the drivers around you, wondering which ones are out-of-staters driving rental cars. Which drivers had a few too many beers before starting the ride home. When traffic comes to a standstill, you pray you'll make it to Georgetown before your bladder bursts. A buffalo burger in Idaho Springs sure would hit the spot. Then again, so would a gas-station hot dog. Anything to get out of this damn car!

Bob Briggs would tell you to relax, and he's a man who knows a thing or two about being stuck behind the wheel. The former legislator and RTD boardmember put 40,000 miles on his car last year traveling the state to promote his plan for eliminating bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-70 and I-25 by 2016. His solution is a statewide passenger rail system, and he speaks as though this vision is already a certainty.

In a way, it is.

Ten years ago, people who talked about a monorail that could fly above the highway at 100 miles per hour through the I-70 corridor's narrow canyons, heavy snows, high winds, sharp turns and steep grades were dismissed as dreamers. That was a pipe dream, a fantasy train beyond even Walt Disney's imagination. Any money diverted toward such an endeavor would be a wasteful experiment. Voters practically shouted that point when they overwhelmingly shot down a $50 million monorail test track in 2001.

But that debate is now moot. Today, the technology exists. In fact, multiple technologies exist. There are companies as far away as Switzerland and as close as Fort Lupton that can build the vehicles to run on a high-speed, elevated track through the mountain corridor. And for the first time in recent history, the Colorado Department of Transportation is not denying that reality. With a new, transit-friendly governor in the Capitol, CDOT officials have acknowledged that a passenger train along I-70 is not only feasible, but a necessary long-term solution to congestion.

So if Briggs sounds overly optimistic when he travels the state to garner support for his passenger rail project, it's because he has reason to be. He tells audiences that there will be a ballot initiative in 2008 to approve and fund a statewide rail system and that by 2016, they'll be able to ride high above the traffic from Denver to Vail in under an hour.

Idaho Springs business owner Mary Jane Loevlie woke up one morning in 1988 to find that the Colorado Department of Transportation intended to widen I-70 through Clear Creek. This "I-70 West Transportation Needs Assessment: Final Report" threatened to swallow much of what was left of the little town. The rest had been engulfed by I-70 when it was originally built in the 1960s. Since then, Idaho Springs had been trying to remake itself, and Loevlie was not about to let it get consumed again.

"The plan was to widen through Clear Creek without any thought for east and west of us, historic districts, people that live here, the environment, air quality," she says. "Their attitude was, you're just a couple of little towns."

Loevlie teamed up with Cynthia Neely, a historic preservationist in Georgetown, and they created an informal citizens' group called the I-70 Task Force. It blew the whistle on CDOT's vision, stalled the plan and started discussing alternatives to widening the highway.

There was a temporary ceasefire, and in the mid-'90s, CDOT embarked on what was called a Major Investment Study of congestion in the I-70 mountain corridor. This time, representatives from local communities, the ski industry, environmental groups, highway contractors, trucking companies and CDOT were all gathered to talk about solutions. In meeting after meeting, facilitators from engineering firm CH2M HILL, which was conducting the study, divided people into small groups to debate how to work on specific problems or stretches of highway. Then they'd bring the issue back to the larger group and let an agreement evolve through consensus.