Rail Roaded

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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?

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Jessica Centers