Colorado high-speed rail study comes as critics look to derail Obama plan

Even as passenger rail proponents and opponents in Colorado pick over the details of a high-speed rail feasibility study (pdf) released this week, criticism continues to swirl around the Obama administration’s $8 billion in stimulus funds meant to kick-start the nation’s languishing passenger rail network.

high-speed train

As first revealed by the Colorado Independent Friday, a nearly $1.5 million high-speed rail study conducted by the intergovernmental Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA) envisions high-speed passenger service along both the Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 corridors costing more than $21 billion at build-out.

The RMRA’s Harry Dale speculated the federal government could be expected to chip in 50 percent or more depending on the political landscape and the cost of gasoline in the decades to come. Colorado residents would likely have to vote to tax themselves to pay for the rest of the capital costs.

But if the phased system of dedicated tracks is built on state or federally owned highway right-of-ways and stays away from existing freight railroad corridors, he said trains would be able to reach speeds high enough to entice people out of their cars on increasingly congested roads and pay premium fares. Then a private company could operate the system at a profit and public operational subsidies would be avoided.

More details of the plan emerged this week, with fares projected at about 35 cents a mile, or just under $40 one way from Denver to Vail or Denver to Pueblo, and revelations that the first phase would likely be DIA to downtown Denver. The report itself contains many alternatives and took 18 months of fact finding to compile.

But the bottom line is that high-speed rail remains an elusive goal for many passenger rail buffs in Colorado, and the Obama administration is doing little to instill confidence in high-speed rail nationwide.

The infrastructure planning group America 2050 conducted a study called “Where High Speed Rail Works Best” that doesn’t have any pair of Colorado cities in its top 50. And the New York Times recently listed a slew of concerns about $1.25 billion in stimulus funding awarded a proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, Fla.

Many rail experts agree that the best place to put high-speed passenger service is in highly congested urban corridors along the East and West coasts, not in much less densely populated areas like the interior West.

But even in corridors such as Boston to Washington, D.C., Dale said the Obama administration is relying on decision makers who do not view passenger rail as a high priority and for years have shunted it off to existing rail infrastructure that is weighted heavily toward moving freight.

“When you really think about our transportation modes, we fly and we drive,” Dale said. “Nobody rides a train anywhere, so you’ve got a very small group of decision makers that have really set policy for passenger rail in this country for many, many years, and they are not mainstream.”

Throwing $8 billion in federal stimulus money at upgrading slow-moving Amtrak rail corridors, with heavy passenger cars and curvy tracks better suited for freight, makes little sense, Dale said, because dedicated high-speed lines would result in speeds that compete favorably with airlines and automobiles.

“So now that the Obama administration sort of lit up the whole high-speed rail conversation, this small non-mainstream group has said, ‘Well, OK, here’s our policy,’ and as you try and bring that into the mainstream you realize there are some real problems with it.”

Freight rail companies want to be absolved of liability for passenger service either sharing their tracks or located adjacent to their tracks. They also charge exorbitant fees to cover that liability and the cost of servicing lines they want to keep open for increasing amounts of freight as interstate trucking costs continue to rise along with fuel prices.

“Obama, because he’s so focused on health care and other things he’s working on, says, ‘Well, we’ll just let these railroad guys take care of this,’ without understanding that these guys have been nowhere near the mainstream for so long that they’ve got their own culture, and in order to bring it into the mainstream it’s got to change and it’s got to change a lot,” Dale said.

One of the only ways Colorado may ever be in the mix for any kind of intercity passenger rail network, some experts say, would be to make it part of a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. But that concept comes with a whole other set of issues.

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