For some, a high-speed rail through the mountain corridor sounds like a pipe dream, but transportation officials say with the right combination of public-private partnerships and hopes for a Colorado Olympic bid, the project might come to fruition.
In January, the Colorado Department of Transportation plans to launch a $1.8 million, 18-month study to find out what the train might look like and how much it could cost. The study will be the first to delve into the details of a rail system since the idea was approved as part of a long-term solutions package for the Interstate 70 mountain corridor this summer.
The feasibility study will address three initial considerations on a rail, or advanced guideway system (AGS) proposal: technology, alignment and financials.
The three issues are inextricably linked. A rail fast enough to compete with the option of driving would face huge challenges in the corridor, including steep grades, unpredictable weather and sharp curves. CDOT officials said the only train in the world that crosses terrain similar to that found in the corridor is located in Tibet, but it is a steel-wheel system, which, Summit Stage director John Jones said, likely wouldn't be fast enough to tempt travelers away from their cars.
A more advanced system that could handle mountain terrain at high speeds is likely to come with a steep price tag to match.
"I feel really strongly that there will be a technology that works," CDOT rail program manager Wendy Wallach said. "But the question is going to be the cost. I'm sure they can build any kind of technology we want. Then we just have to get together with stakeholders and say, 'is this realistic?'"
Early estimates for the type of rail system envisioned for the corridor came in between $10-$20 billion, a daunting number for CDOT, which is already struggling to maintain the existing highway system on its approximately $1 billion yearly budget.
If a rail is to be constructed in the foreseeable future, it might have to be the product of collaboration with the private sector.
"We would be looking at a public-private partnership," Wallach said. "We're hoping that we would have enough ridership that a concessionaire would want to design, build, operate and maintain it. We don't have the money to front the funds, obviously, so we would need some investment."
There may already be some interest from private firms in providing that investment. A company called Parsons Transportation has submitted a proposal to CDOT for an undisclosed public-private partnership on I-70.
"Any private investor has to comply with the record of decision," Wallach said. "AGS is part of the record of decision."
Though even the earliest proposals for an AGS are huge in scope and estimated cost, a new state goal on the horizon may provide the political will to push the project forward on a relatively shorter timeline, officials said.
The Metro Denver Sports Commission recently announced plans to make a bid for the 2022 Olympic winter games, a possibility that could speed the arrival of a high-speed rail connecting Denver to the mountain snow sports.
"You would need the train," Wallach said. "If that happens I think that everything could be expedited. You'd have to expedite it, otherwise you couldn't win the Olympic (bid)."
While the transportation department studies the feasibility of a high-speed rail, the Summit Stage will be studying the feasibility of connecting a local rail station to the rest of the county.
The Summit Stage will soon launch a future-needs study, funded in part by a CDOT grant, that will looking at potential bus routes that might connect to a future rail station.
But Stage officials say plans for a rail are still so preliminary, that connection discussions today might be irrelevant by the time the train system is actually constructed.
"Our involvement right now is conceptual," Jones said. "We're going to study that involvement, but any plan we would make would probably change ... between now and whenever the rail line runs."
The extent of the Stage's involvement with providing connection route also depends on where a rail station would be located, an aspect of the proposal that is still a moving target for CDOT in the first round of alignment research set to begin next year.
The number of transit riders generated by a high-speed rail is also an aspect of consideration for the Stage.
"If the (rail) generates the types of numbers they're talking about right now, I'm not sure how we'd handle it," Jones said.
The demand for local public transportation could potentially expand enough to require dedicated bus lanes on Highways 9 and 6 and high-capacity coaches, he said.
The study is a first step, local officials say, to resolving Summit County's transportation issues.
"It's a very important study," Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs said. "It will help find the most efficient and cost-effective way to move goods, services and people up and down the corridor."