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.
Neely watched people take the process to heart. Before each meeting, they knew what the questions were going to be, had read the background documents and talked to their neighbors about them. "The public is willing to educate themselves at a very high level if you're willing to involve them in the process," she says.
In 1998, more than 200 people gathered to decide on the wording of a final recommendation for I-70. "All these people with very competing interests were at that meeting, and nobody had a great deal of trust that everybody was going to abide by this language," recalls JoAnn Sorensen, who was a Clear Creek County commissioner at the time. "So when the final reading of the language came out, people were strategically positioned. People who didn't ordinarily stand next to the highway people or the ski-industry people were standing there, and if anybody would have raised their hand to object to the language, it would have been a fistfight."
Neely was positioned next to a representative of the ski industry when the engineer who led the study read the statement calling for mass transit as the long-term solution, as well as highway improvements in the short term to address pinch points and safety problems. A CDOT official asked if anyone had an objection.
Silence. Then an eruption of applause.
The people in that room thought they'd reached their final solution for I-70, but the battle was only beginning.
At the first-ever meeting of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority in January, executive director Bob Briggs sat beside his newly elected chairman, Harry Dale. After Briggs advised the authority members to remember this historic day so they could look back on it fondly while the world marveled at their accomplishment, Dale -- in his typically understated tone -- said, "I think, as everybody knows, this is extremely important to Colorado."
When, a few minutes later, Briggs casually mentioned that he had just received a call from CDOT about a meeting the next day pertaining to their project, Dale looked livid. This was the first he had heard of the meeting. Apparently, CDOT had an issue with the RMRA wanting to expand the scope of its feasibility study to Grand Junction instead of stopping in Dotsero.
The agency was going to discuss how the change might affect the funding the group had been promised. The short notice wouldn't give Dale time to rearrange his schedule. He asked why he was just hearing about the meeting, and Briggs said the phone call was the first he'd heard of it, too. No more surprises, Dale told the group. They were going to have to stay on top of everything to avoid getting -- pardon the pun, he sighed -- derailed.
"It shouldn't be like this," Dale said. "These guys have no vision. They're Neanderthals when it comes to vision."
If not for the fact that he himself is one, Dale would have a distaste for politicians. He certainly has a distaste for bureaucracy. The Clear Creek County commissioner can speak for hours about how he believes CDOT has skirted federal rules and guidelines, misled the public and made a mockery of its mission and vision statements. Dale has his own website, www.trainsnotlanes.info, dedicated to criticizing CDOT. It's also where he's compiled the hundreds of hours of research he's done on highway congestion, transit technology and public processes. That way, he knows where to find that Federal Highway Administration report on collaborative problem-solving, should he ever need it, or that environmental stewardship guide CDOT commissioned in 2003. Most every page is headed with the tagline "CDOT -- Creating Tomorrow's Problems Today."
"The more you study this, the more you find the way these guys are going about this is wrong," Dale says. "And it's not just their pursuit of a single alternative, but that single alternative is the wrong alternative for Colorado. And how aggressively they pursue it when there's so much data and information out there that their process was bad and their solution was bad. They're counting on people to not do the research and not understand the issue and support the kind of knee-jerk reaction that says we just need to widen the highway."
There's a lot of animosity toward CDOT along the I-70 corridor; Dale just happens to be one of the most vocal critics. Residents can't understand why it's been almost ten years since they completed the Major Investment Study and they're still fighting CDOT for a transit system.
The final MIS report recommending transit was released in December 1998, just after Bill Owens had been elected governor. It was widely known that Owens, a former oil and gas lobbyist, favored highways over other transportation modes, so transit supporters had hedged their bets in case he won the election. In the spring of 1998, they'd pushed a bill through the state legislature that created the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, which was to examine various transit alternatives that would work in the steep grades and extreme weather of the mountain corridor.
At the same time, CDOT was supposed to embark on another survey of the I-70 issue, one that focused on transportation alternatives and their impact along the entire corridor, from C-470 to Glenwood Springs. The transportation agency had committed to the effort as part of the final recommendations in the 1998 MIS report, and it was a major concession, because the new Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement would put transit and highway alternatives on equal footing by analyzing options in the context of a much larger area. That would allow the cost of transit to be spread out instead of concentrated on just a few miles of highway.
Owens's new CDOT administration, however, decided to skip the PEIS and widen the highway to six lanes between Floyd Hill and US 40. It hired J.F. Sato and Associates, an engineering company in Littleton, to perform the required environmental analysis.
Once again, people in the mountain counties started raising hell, demanding that the earlier commitments be honored. CDOT acquiesced.
"The corridor communities, particularly Clear Creek County, made strong suggestions that [the PEIS] needed to occur," says CDOT Region I director Jeff Kullman. "It took a little nudging, but CDOT eventually said yes. They had J.F. Sato under contract already, so they expanded the scope to the full study."
Though J.F. Sato maintains that CDOT has never tried to influence the firm's findings, Dale and many others have argued that the decision to hire a small company and not put the project out for bid was unseemly.
"This was a company that had never done anything of this size," says Miller Hudson, who was then executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority. "I said publicly at the time that if you needed any evidence, this was proof that CDOT was on a forced march to a predetermined conclusion, and that would be that you needed to widen the highway.
"I don't think anybody thought at the time that eight years later, we still wouldn't have a report."
Harry Dale was on the Clear Creek County Commission when the draft PEIS study came out in December 2004. He was suddenly thrust into the I-70 debate, and having been a Colorado resident for seven years and a public official for just two, he had a lot of catching up to do. "Before I was a commissioner, I was like everybody else: 'Let's widen the highway,'" he says. "I think the first thing that hit me over the head was the bias that was in the document, and then what would happen during the construction."
He quickly scoured the report -- which will be nine years and almost $24 million in the making when it's finally completed later this year -- and found that it compared twenty different transportation alternatives for the I-70 corridor based on factors such as environmental impacts, respect for community values, safety, technological feasibility and affordability. However, the "preferred alternatives" were chosen based solely on price projections: Only those options with a capital cost of less than $4 billion were considered feasible.
As a result, a six-lane highway, which was estimated at $2.65 billion, was preferred over an advanced guideway system, such as a monorail, which was priced at $6.15 billion.
There was just one other hurdle for "preferred alternatives" to jump: The option had to meet travel-demand projections for 2025. The PEIS had a 25-year outlook, even though CDOT does not expect the preferred six-lane highway alternative to be complete before 2025 -- after fifteen years of construction. Projections indicate that this six-lane highway would then be at capacity -- or just as congested as it is today -- by 2030.
The public outcry in response to the PEIS draft was immense and immediate. The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Trout Unlimited and the Sierra Club formed a group called Mountains to Plains Transportation Solutions, which grew to a coalition of 26 non-profit organizations opposing the PEIS findings.
"A true, legitimate policy analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act has got to consider the value of environmental costs," says Trout Unlimited's Gary Frey, who had worked on numerous PEIS documents as a NEPA expert. "Fundamentally, our group believes the decision in this document was made a long time ago: Anything selected will be a roadway-based alternative."
Absent was an analysis of environmental mitigation costs, and the group believes that had those been studied, the price of highway expansion would shoot well above the $4 billion cap.
Dale couldn't fathom what ripping up the only artery to the mountains for fifteen years would do to those communities, let alone the state: "I know CDOT officials will say they have experience with T-Rex and all these other things, but it's not the same. There are places where you simply can't widen to divert traffic around."
He also believed that the $4 billion figure was arbitrarily selected for the express purpose of ruling out transit. Then, as he broke down the numbers, he came to also believe that the estimate for highway widening was intentionally deflated. He constructed a chart and PowerPoint presentation to explain this point, using Glenwood Canyon as the basis of his cost analysis. The way the road through Glenwood Canyon becomes a part of the landscape is an example of what's officially known as Context Sensitive Design, which the Federal Highway Administration requires transportation projects to use.
"If you were to look at a six-lane version of what was done in Glenwood Canyon, that would cost about $100 million per mile," he says. "When you go through and look at the places you would have to do that in the corridor, you're going to wind up with a $5 billion highway. The solutions for rail in the corridor, depending on the technology, are probably between $4 billion and $6 billion. So you're really talking about the same price.
"Even in CDOT's own data, they show that by 2025, when they think they can get this done by, the congestion is just as bad as it is today," he adds. "In fact, it's worse. And so it doesn't accomplish anything. It just wastes a whole bunch of money and doesn't take into account all these environmental things that are important to us."
As comments like these began to flood CDOT, Region 1 director Kullman was the man responding. "I would say, with few exceptions, the individuals of Clear Creek County probably know the PEIS document better than anybody else except the preparers themselves," Kullman says. "And so, yeah, they've been vocal, because they have a lot at stake here. It's obviously very difficult to convince them otherwise that we didn't have a pre-determined outlook when we went into this process."
Still, he tried.
To detractors, he pointed out that the ridership survey and subsequent traffic analysis involved experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was one of the most comprehensive studies the feds had ever seen. "In fact, the Federal Transit Authority said they would not accept our transit study because they thought it exaggerated too many trips toward transit," he explains. "We're showing 15 to 20 percent transit trips during the peak hours, which is exceedingly high. So from a traffic-modeling perspective, we certainly did look at all the alternatives."
He also explained that the $4 billion threshold was an attempt to be realistic about what could be accomplished over the next 25 years. "We looked at what we had, and we believed we had about $1 billion in the bank for this corridor," says Kullman. "And we just exaggerated that up, thinking, 'My goodness, if we could get really lucky and everything in the world fell into place, it's possible that we could get $3 billion or $4 billion.'"
Kullman defended the $2.65 billion highway-widening estimate as taking into account the mitigation costs associated with the federally required Context Sensitive Solution and Context Sensitive Design processes. "CSS is, I believe, a new term for something the State of Colorado has been doing very well for years," he says. "By evidence, look at Glenwood Canyon, Vail Pass, Berthoud Pass. How we married the highway system with the environment. We addressed all kinds of mitigation. We are absolutely committed to that kind of solution for this corridor. We assumed that kind of treatment throughout the process, and you have to. This corridor is too important to everybody in Colorado. I've lived here my whole life. This is home for me. My parents were raised here and my kids still live here, and it's important to me that we do this right."
The mountain communities were so disturbed by the PEIS findings that in 2005 they, too, formed an organization to oppose them. The I-70 Coalition then held a two-day retreat in SolVista in order to come to consensus on I-70. It was a meeting not unlike the many sessions the participants had sat through seven years earlier.
Again the group came to absolute agreement: Build a transit system in tandem with highway improvements. The "preferred alternatives" they submitted to CDOT now have the endorsement of every jurisdiction from Golden and Jefferson County through Garfield County and Glenwood Springs, up into Pitkin County and Aspen, all the way to Steamboat Springs and Park County. Vail Resorts and Intrawest signed on, too.
Since the retreat, the group has begun to see some movement at CDOT. The agency has recently begun talking about a multi-modal vision for the I-70 mountain corridor and updated the planning outlook for the PEIS from 25 to 50 years, a change Clear Creek County had been asking for since the study began. As a result, the "preferred alternative" now under internal review is still a six-lane highway widening, but that highway would come with preservation for transit.
"We were starting to move a direction, and we were able to see the light," says Kullman. "It took a lot of persuasion for some people. It seemed to be one of the strongest opinions of the people: 'Come on, CDOT. Look a little longer than twenty years. Have a little vision.' We heard that time and time again, as well as the multi-modal, and I believe we've addressed both those things.
"We would start the highway improvements first, but as we do those improvements we will preserve the ability, the functionality, to allow transit to be added," he continues. "Under the current fiscal constraints, it's probably going to take us most of the next twenty years to complete highway improvements, so under our plan, transit would probably come financially after that point. But if something changes and the legislature or the people of the state determine that transit is a more desired alternative, then we could just stop where we're at with the highway and move to the transit."
The irony that this change comes as Bill Ritter takes over the governor's office isn't lost on many. Ritter's newly appointed CDOT director, Russell George, is interested in an advanced-guideway system for the corridor but is pragmatic about the cost and the time frame. He says highway-widening needs to come first. "It's a near-term solution for the problem," George explains. "We need to move automobile traffic, and that means more lanes.
"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.
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."
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?
"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.
You step onto the platform comfortably -- it's at ground level -- and plop into a window seat with plenty of room to stretch your legs. You can order a drink if you feel like it, or a sandwich. There's a restroom in your car that's downright massive compared to airplane bathrooms.
You've made this trip dozens of times, but it still manages to take your breath away every time you see blue sky meet white peaks. You're gliding quickly and quietly over the highway. You look down at the cars and think back to all those long days in traffic, always rushing to beat the early rush or the late rush and still ending up smack in the middle of a twenty-mile backup. You remember all those weekends you stayed home instead of going hiking or biking or rafting because you were so frustrated that the winter traffic jams had bled into your spring, summer and fall. You remember driving with your nose practically pressed to the glass because you couldn't see past the snow. The fear. The anxiety.
But those trips are long gone. Now you drive I-70 when the mood and weather suits you. It's wide open these days. Of course the highway is wide open, you think before drifting into a quick catnap. Who wouldn't rather ride this train?