New Colorado Rail Service Could Come Down to Politics and Timing
Momentum is building for intercity rail service on Colorado’s booming Front Range. With voter approval required for key funding, it could come down to a question of timing.
Just before the pandemic began, two polling firms, one right-leaning and one left-leaning, conducted a survey of 600 Colorado voters to ask how they felt about building new passenger rail service on the Front Range, the budding megaregion on the east side of the Rocky Mountains where nearly three quarters of the state population lives.
Eighty-five percent of respondents professed total support for the project; that was a shot in the arm, says Jim Souby, a longtime rail advocate and president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association. What was even better was that 61 percent of respondents said they would support a new sales tax to pay for the service. For a place like Colorado, with a strong tradition of anti-tax organizing, that was huge, Souby says.
A lot has changed since 2019, but momentum for Front Range passenger rail has only grown stronger. Regional leaders have lined up behind it. Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on it. Amtrak supports it. The state Legislature established a Front Range Passenger Rail District with significant independent powers, and a board of directors chaired by Souby. New funding is available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. After years of ups and downs — “a wave, a trough, a wave” — conditions are uniquely favorable to the project, Souby says.
“The way [the district] is structured gives us the best chance we’ve ever had to make this happen, as long as we can create a service development plan that really convinces the Front Range voters that this is going to benefit them economically and socially,” Souby says. “That’s up to us.”
A Booming, Car-Centric Region
The Front Range Rail Passenger District, which was created by the state Legislature in 2021, incorporates communities along the Interstate 25 corridor that runs due north from Trinidad in southern Colorado to Fort Collins, 275 miles north. The district is charged with developing an intercity service plan for the area, though the longer-term vision for the corridor includes linkages to New Mexico and Wyoming. The core of the Front Range urban corridor, from Pueblo to Cheyenne, is a booming population center that grew by 15 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs regularly rank on lists of the best places to live in the U.S. The region strings together two dozen universities, six military bases and 11 Fortune 500 companies. It’s situated in one of the most striking natural environments in the world. But I-25 is bursting at the seams, regional planners say. Congestion has gotten steadily worse as the region has grown. And the increase in car traffic has contributed to the region’s worsening air quality, in “severe” violation of federal standards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Everyone's dependent on I-25, and it's just so backed up and congested," says Boulder County Commissioner Claire Levy, a member of the rail district board. "There's an opportunity for connectivity that we just don't have right now."
It’s hard to imagine the region retaining its quality of life in the long term without creating viable alternatives to driving, says Jacob Riger, the long range transportation planning manager for the Denver Regional Council of Governments.
“As much as anything, our challenge as a region is to keep this a great place and not be consumed by the problems that come with growth,” Riger says.
Expanding the Intercity Rail Network
Amtrak included Front Range passenger rail in its service expansion plan for 2035 — a lone north-south spur in a big expanse of the Mountain West served only by the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief lines, which link San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, to Chicago. Many other new service corridors were included on the map too. But the Front Range line is further along in the planning than most, says Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman.
There’s lots to do, including planning service schedules, identifying necessary rail upgrades, putting a sales tax referendum on the ballot, and applying for additional state and federal funds. The district will also have to select a service operator — not necessarily Amtrak, but considering it’s planning to use existing freight rails, and Amtrak has the legal authority to run passenger service on those rails, it almost certainly will be.
The most popular intercity rail corridors in the United States run between big cities on the coasts, says Christof Spieler, a vice president and director of planning at the consulting firm Huitt-Zollars and a lecturer on transportation at Rice University. But what makes them successful is not just the big population centers on the ends, but the evenly spaced smaller communities in between, he says.
“In that sense the Front Range seems perfect [for intercity rail] because it has a lot of reasonable-sized cities which are the right distance apart,” Spieler says.
Planners will need to determine how much service they want to run when the line launches. Opinions differ. Running regular service throughout the day would require not only more operating costs but a bigger capital investment, to build things like sidings that can help reduce delays and conflicts between freight and passenger trains. It would also likely be more useful and attract more riders than a service that runs once or twice a day. Some lines have slowly built up service over time, like the Capitol Corridor between San Jose and Sacramento, which started with three trains a day in the early 1990s and now runs 15, Spieler says.
“You don’t have to start with hourly service to be a long-term success, but obviously you’d be depriving people of better service at the beginning,” Spieler says. “I don’t think that’s an argument for waiting.”
Timing the Ballot Question
There's another question that is currently a big source of debate among Front Range rail proponents: when to put the proposal before voters. Gov. Polis says he wants the sales tax on the ballot in 2024, a presidential election year when turnout is expected to be high. Other options include 2025, an off-year when proponents expect that anti-tax groups could have a better chance at organizing opposition, or 2026, a midterm year. Andy Karsian, the general manager for the Front Range Passenger Rail District, says the key thing is to have a clear, ambitious, achievable vision to present to voters when the time comes.
The district is currently creating a federally required Service Development Plan. There’s enough time to get the proposal on next year’s ballot, but it would be a squeeze, and Karsian isn’t convinced it’s the right idea. In June, Karsian met with leaders in Las Animas County to present the progress on the plan, and noted that Polis is pushing for a 2024 measure.
“He loves passenger rail,” Karsian told the group. “He wants us to go to the ballot in 2024. Bless his heart. I don’t know if I want that. There’s a lot of politics that still need to be decided about all of this.”
Karsian agrees the 2024 electorate is likely to be the biggest and most favorable to passenger rail in the coming years. But he says Coloradans have a history of rejecting statewide and regional tax increases. The proposal has to be a “clearly explained, defensible” vision, he says.
In an emailed statement, Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Gov. Polis, noted that Congress has authorized $12 billion for intercity rail expansion outside the Northeast over the next five years — a funding opportunity that could change with the political winds.
“Given the potentially narrow window, Colorado has a historic opportunity to access these unprecedented federal funds and the governor’s message to the Front Range Rail District and CDOT is that unnecessary red tape or reinventing the wheel could cost us this once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he said. “Gov. Polis stands ready to support them with every tool available to make them successful.”
Looming in the background of the plan is a Denver-area transit referendum from 2004, called FasTracks, which promised lots of new light rail and commuter rail service but which has widely been seen as a disappointment. The project has so far failed to deliver a promised commuter rail connection from Denver to Boulder. The dissatisfaction over that project has dominated the transit conversation in the area, says Levy, the Boulder County commissioner. Residents are only starting to become aware of the intercity rail proposal, and the possibility that it could create a link — albeit a less frequent one — where the commuter rail project has so far failed to come through.
Levy was appointed to the Front Range Passenger Rail District by Gov. Polis, and hopes the proposal can be ready for the 2024 ballot. But it'll take time to build the case and overcome voter skepticism, and there's no sense in rushing it, Levy says.
"The worst thing you can do is have a vote and lose," she says.
The district is about to get into “the meat” of the Service Development Plan, Karsian says, with ridership projections and financing plans, and it's hoping to hear about the FRA grant application this fall. It’s likely to propose a “starter service,” he says, running low-frequency trains with a much smaller initial capital investment. Even that will require tough negotiations with the freight rail companies that own the tracks — the types of negotiations that have delayed passenger service in places like the Gulf Coast for years. There’s a lot on the line for the future of the Front Range, and for intercity rail in the U.S.
“It’s definitely not one or two or three forces that are moving this. We’re all just kind of riding a wave right now and we’re trying to paddle in the same direction,” Karsian says. “It’s gonna be an interesting next year.”