I-70 Toll Debate Brings Mountain Rail Concept to the Forefront

The battle lines drawn over a proposed toll on Interstate 70 into Colorado’s high country are much more than mere Western-Slope-versus-Front-Range wrangling. The debate is also being framed along the lines of mass transit proponents versus highway expansionists.As currently written, SB 213, sponsored by Sen. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, would give the state the authority to charge a $5 toll each way on a 35-mile stretch of I-70 between the outskirts of metro Denver and the Eisenhower Tunnel on the border of Clear Creek and Summit counties.

The goal of McElhany’s bill, which passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee April 11 and is now before the full state Senate, is to raise $3.5 billion for improvements on the four-lane highway west of Denver, including possibly expanding it by two lanes. Clear Creek, Summit and Gilpin county residents would be exempt from the toll.

But two groups that have actively worked for years to come up with alternatives to the six-lane approach want the state to put the brakes on the toll proposal until more studies can be conducted. One group, the I-70 Coalition — composed of representatives from 30 political jurisdictions along the corridor — expects to release its transit planning study by the end of the year.

“We can’t just talk about adding more asphalt,” the group’s Web site states. “Solutions to the I-70 problem must include transit.”

The group’s director, Florine P. Raitano, said the coalition came together in 2004 as a result of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) calling for the expansion of I-70 between Denver and the tunnel.

“That created a lot of frustration and consternation for the communities along the interstate,” Raitano said, adding that the state has taken a more collaborative and inclusive approach since Gov. Bill Ritter was elected in 2006 and last year appointed Russell George to head the CDOT.

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority — a multi-jurisdictional government body created through an intergovernmental agreement and funded in part by a CDOT grant — hopes to have a firm under contract by next month to begin conducting a feasibility study for high-speed passenger train service along the I-70 and I-25 corridors, as well as a few other spur lines.

That study will look at funding mechanisms, potential ridership, train technology, fares, rail alignments and station stops. As the study looks at the mountain route, it will piggyback on the I-70 Coalition study. Clear Creek County Commissioner Harry Dale chairs the authority and is personally dead set against a toll to expand the highway, although the rail authority has not taken an official position.

“The senators are trying to accomplish something, and that’s good, but we need a comprehensive solution for the entire state,” Dale said, referring also to an earlier toll proposal put forth by Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, that died in committee. “Not just one toll on one county on one specific roadway.”

Dale said expanding the interstate will cost $4 billion to $6 billion and take 15 years, with massive disruptions all along the corridor and slowdowns caused by the toll booths to pay for it — and then, he adds, it still won’t be able to handle the traffic demand between Denver and the mountain resorts.

“Colorado’s general public is way out in front of this in terms of looking at high-speed rail in both corridors. I think the decision-makers and elected officials are further behind the curve in this case,” Dale said. “The public wants options. They’ve seen how successful rail has been in the RTD system (Regional Transportation District in the Denver metro area). They are much more apt to vote for a tax increase for a rail solution in the corridor than the same old highway expansion.”

The rail authority has yet to pinpoint costs for a rail line along the I-70 corridor and will try to do so in its feasibility study, but the price tag is expected to be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon, a member of the I-70 Coalition, is frustrated that a mountain rail system isn’t already under way.

“Mass transit is so disheartening,” Runyon said. “Sometimes it just seems to be a wish and prayer on the horizon instead of moving forward and saying we need to make this happen. It’s all funding, and I don’t know how to get around that.”

Runyon said he had hoped McElhany’s proposal would simply die in committee, but if it moves forward, he wants Eagle County residents to be added to the list of exempt drivers.

“The thing McElhany is trying to do is get some money generated, and there’s a lot of value to that, because all the planning in the world will mean nothing if we don’t have a funding source,” Runyon said. “If we do go with the toll, it should be used as a toll to manage travel demand.” This would mean that fees would be lower at midweek and during off-peak hours.

Originally from New Jersey, Runyon said, “I’ve never seen a toll plaza I like, and I’ve never seen one I didn’t have to slow down for.”

Runyon said a quicker way to get commuter rail going in Eagle County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas, would be to use existing Union Pacific rail lines between Dotsero on the west end of the county and Avon at the east end. That rail line, known as the Tennessee Pass Line, has been dormant for more than a decade. It continues on up and over Tennessee Pass to Leadville, where many resort workers live in lower-cost housing.

Hurdles to making that happen include getting UP to sign off on the use of the line, and then getting the Federal Railroad Administration to allow lighter rail cars on a line that still could be used by heavier freight trains if UP ever re-activates the line.

Dale said such a line might be an early action item considered in the authority’s feasibility study. Another option, he said, would be using the existing rail corridor but putting in another set of tracks to avoid conflicting types of rail cars on the same line.

Most of that line is relatively flat and would allow for passenger train service between the Eagle County Airport — the state’s second busiest during ski season — and a transit center being built in Avon at the base of Beaver Creek ski area.

The new Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa in Avon, which will be open next ski season, donated land to the town in order to build a transit center that includes a rail hub as well as buses and a parking garage. It’s within walking distance of the Westin’s new gondola, which connects to Beaver Creek ski area.

“It would be so nice to be able to just jump on the rail from (the Eagle County Airport) and come into downtown Avon,” said Chuck Madison, the Westin project manager for East West Partners, the same developer transforming Denver’s Union Station into a multi-modal residential and commercial hub. “Whenever I’m in Europe, I always prefer going by rail (to ski resorts) because it’s just so relaxing.”

But Runyon said the European ski-train model is a long way from becoming a reality in Colorado ski country.

“Europe evolved around the horse; we evolved around the automobile, and in Europe in general distances are much less,” Runyon said. “Here we have these vast expanses, and the design of their cities tends to be concentrated, so they don’t have the suburbs we have because of the automobile.”

Go to Rocky Mountain Rail.org or I-70 Solutions.orgs for more information.

This is an ongoing series on the transit problems facing travelers along the Interstate 70 corridor between Denver and Colorado’s major mountain resorts.

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