Facing Challenges, Passenger Rail Commission Aims Beyond 2020

By Benedict Wright

With a predicted population growth of three million people by 2050 and the majority of that growth occurring along the Front Range, Colorado is looking for alternatives to Interstate 25 to transport people up and down the already congested corridor.

In 2017, The Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission was created to study, plan, and eventually build a passenger rail line spanning from Fort Collins to Pueblo. The Commission now plans to get a ballot measure to voters on the Front Range as soon as Nov. 2021. 

Passing such a measure would be a critical step in making the vision of the efficient and reliable regional transit a reality for people living along Colorado’s densely populated Front Range. 

When asked about the need for this ballot initiative, Randy Grauberger, Project Director for the Colorado Department of Transportation who reports to the Commission, stated, “Just jamming additional cars and additional concrete into a highway corridor isn’t the long-term solution.” A passenger rail, said Grauberger, “is critical for Colorado continuing to be competitive as a state.”

Jill Gaebler, Colorado Springs City Council member and chair of the Passenger Rail Commission, said it is important now to think beyond expanding I-25 and recognize that the rail is “a long-term plan.” She added, “If someone’s not thinking about it now, we’re not going to get it done by the time we really need it.” 

According to Grauberger, who works closely with the consultant hired to develop a service plan and cooperate with stakeholders, the project will likely cost between $5 and $10 billion. To partially fund the project, the Commission plans to propose the creation of a tax authority in the areas that would benefit from the rail line. As required by Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, any tax increase must be approved by a vote of the people, and the Commission now hopes to bring a ballot measure before voters as soon as 2021. 

A primary responsibility of the Commission going forward will be coming up with a service plan and a funding structure that Colorado state lawmakers will endorse, and voters will agree to.

While the Commission’s original plan was to capitalize on high voter turnout in 2020 and get a measure passed this year, after facing delays and opposition in the legislature, the new target, at the earliest, will be 2021. 

“We still have a lot of work to do in terms of developing the plan,” said Grauberger, explaining that details like ridership modeling, station locations, and the alignment of the tracks themselves still need to be ironed out. He said that the Commission hired him as Project Director and the consultant later than was initially planned.

With this new target, the Commission’s focus this year will be on cooperating with stakeholders, educating voters, and developing a specific service development plan. If all goes well, a measure could pass in the 2021 legislative session and may appear on the ballot next fall. 

Grauberger is confident that a clear plan for rail will be agreeable to most voters. He cited a survey conducted last October by Magellan Strategies and RBI Strategies which indicated that 85% of likely voters on the Front Range supported passenger rail and 61% would be willing to pay higher taxes for it (the survey specifically asked about a hypothetical sales tax increase).

Gaebler is similarly confident that the prospect of a “public-private partnership” will be appealing to voters. Gaebler also cited the support of Gov. Jared Polis as an encouraging sign for the future of the passenger rail. 

For Gaebler, the need for rail goes beyond just supporting economic growth, curbing emissions, and reducing congestion on I-25. “I don’t think cars are the answer, whether they’re electric or not,” she said. “We need a mass-transit solution to help move people in a better way. I think cars are what have caused our cities to become less about community,” adding that “freeways divide neighborhoods.”

According to Grauberger, “Passenger rail around the country is seeing a renaissance, and it’s just obvious to a lot of people in a lot of locations that people will get out of their cars if you provide them an option.”

While Front Range passenger rail is still at least a few years away from providing that option, the Passenger Rail Commission continues the work it set out to do.  

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