Caddie Nath

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August 19, 2012
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CDOT options open for high-speed rail

Texas entrepreneur Robert Pulliam has bad news for those who dream of some day bypassing Interstate 70 traffic and hopping a train to the mountains.

"The approach of the traditional high-speed rail is simply not going to work in Colorado," he said.

The grades are too steep, the weather too bad, the price tag too high.

Existing technology, he said, isn't going to be able to capture the Colorado Department of Transportation vision - a high-speed rail that can cover the distance from west Denver to Eagle County in an hour or less at a price taxpayers and lawmakers can stomach.

"If the existing technologies either physically can't, or you can't afford it, then it's time to develop some new technology," he said.

Queue Pulliam's solution, a transit model designed to tackle the punishing climb from Denver to Dillon for a fraction of the cost. It's an alternative take on the traditional high-speed rail, just without the rail.

Pulliam's train would pass instead through a series of elevated hoops, held aloft by a complex suspension system designed to allow the cars to round corners without derailing.

Because the model doesn't use tracks, the ground impacts of a traditional train both on existing infrastructure and the environment aren't a concern - a feature that significantly shaves down the cost, according to Pulliam.

"The problem is not making the train go fast," he said. "It's affording the track."

A pressure system created by opposing rollers working on either side of the cars he says would also allow his train to ascend the I-70 mountain corridor's 7 percent grades at the speeds CDOT engineers want to see.

The catch?

Pulliam hasn't actually built one yet.

"We want to work with one of their universities, if they (CDOT) will pay the tab ... and get the basics," Pulliam said. "We'll look at the corridor and see if this will work."

Transportation officials seem skeptical, but say they're keeping their options open. They met with Pulliam recently to hear his proposal.

"With the pace of change in all technology, we're leaving the door cracked for the possibility that there might be some technologies available in the next five years that could work or be improved over the conventional technology," CDOT rail program manager David Krutsinger said when asked about Pulliam's proposal. "If they could become commercially viable by the time we would implement the project, then we would consider them."

There have been plenty of hopefuls from the private sector offering alternative solutions to CDOT's I-70 conundrum. Since June, more than 150 private-sector representatives from around the world have expressed interest in the project.

But not all of them are ready to go, Krutsinger said, and CDOT's train is leaving the station.

If the project is determined to be feasible, transportation officials hope to be ready to sign on with a private developer by 2019, Krutsinger said.

The rail is a cornerstone of the package of solutions for the mounting traffic problems on the I-70 mountain corridor recommended in a programmatic study released last year.

CDOT sent out a request for information to private transit technology providers Aug. 16. It's the first step in a study to determine whether a high-speed rail to cover the 120 miles between C-470 in Jefferson County and the Eagle County Regional Airport is technologically and financially feasible.

"This study is making a critical determination about the potential role a high-speed transit system will play in solving the transportation congestion and safety challenges on the I-70 mountain corridor," CDOT Division of Transit and Rail director Mark Imhoff stated. "This is a unique opportunity for Colorado to become a global leader in advancing high-speed transit through sensitive environments and extreme landscapes."

Yet there are critics who say CDOT is tapping a 19th-century technology to solve a 21st-century problem. By Pulliam's count, it's been decades since significant strides were made in the arena of rail transit technology.

But transportation officials aren't the only ones who have to buy into innovations like Pulliam's model.

"These technology vendors have to prove and convince the better part of the state of Colorado, all along the I-70 corridor and the entire metro area, (before) we all would collectively say it's the right deal for Colorado," Krutsinger said.

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The Summit Daily Updated Aug 19, 2012 09:25PM Published Aug 19, 2012 09:23PM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.