A growing population, increased traffic congestion and a state transportation budget that can’t sustain road maintenance demands has Colorado officials exploring the feasibility of high-speed transit systems along Colorado’s well-traveled Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 corridors.
Although a high-speed rail system linking the Front Range to the High Country has been discussed on and off for at least the last decade, an Advanced Guideway System Project Leadership Team consisting of Colorado Department of Transportation officials and private consultants was assembled in April 2012 to either get the mountain project on wheels or put it to bed indefinitely.
The AGS team’s goal is to determine the feasibility of constructing a high-speed transit system to ultimately link Denver International Airport and Eagle County Regional Airport via the I-70 corridor, while taking into consideration available technology, rail alignment, ridership and cost.
Team members presented their findings to Summit’s Board of County Commissioners during a morning workshop on Tuesday, Nov. 12, in Breckenridge.
Beth Vogelsang, an AGS team member and a principal at OV Consulting in Golden, said Tuesday the team’s first goal when it was assembled was to identify whether existing rail technology could meet the demands of transporting passengers in a high alpine environment.
The team identified three options: high-speed rail, high-speed Maglev and hybrid Maglev.
Although the first two options were attractive with respect to their ability to transport riders — high-speed rail and high-speed Maglev trains operate at speeds between 150 and 180 mph — they cannot climb mountain grades in excess of 7 percent.
As a result, both rail systems would require the construction of extensive tunnel systems of 65 miles in length for high-speed rail and 40 miles for high-speed Maglev, driving up costs to an estimated $32 billion and $25 billion, respectively.
In addition to the need to tunnel construction, the speed of the trains would require the rail systems to be more or less constructed in a straight line along the I-70 right-of-way, which would mean bypassing the resort towns of Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.
Considering that the vast majority of traffic along the I-70 corridor is tourist driven, the team knew it needed to find another option to service those Summit County destinations. Hybrid Maglev could be the answer, the team said.
Although hybrid Maglev trains operate at lower speeds — 100 to 120 mph — they can climb 7 percent mountain grades with ease. Such a system would require far less tunnel construction — just 16 miles — and could be diverted away from I-70 to service not only Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, but also Silverthorne or Frisco, or both, with their greater populations of year-round residents.
Hybrid Maglev carries an estimated cost of $10.8 billion, which isn’t cheap, but is much more feasible than high-speed rail or high-speed Maglev.
Once the team identified its rail options, it then had to determine the most appropriate alignment to minimize sprawl and maximize connectivity. Thinking fewer stations would mean faster travel, and thus high ridership, the team identified a desire for eight priority stations to connect Golden to the Eagle County Regional Airport, the proposed first phase of the project.
A Golden to DIA extension would be phase two and add an estimated $3.2 billion to the cost estimates above.
Among the potential sites for a rail station are the I-70 and Sixth Avenue junction in Jefferson County; Idaho Springs, Empire Junction and Georgetown in Clear Creek County; and Vail, Avon and the airport in Eagle County.
Potential Summit County stations are still to be determined, but seven options in five towns were presented Tuesday. According to the team’s research, Vogelsang said Keystone and Copper Mountain feature currently undeveloped plots of land near or in their respective resorts.
Breckenridge is a little more difficult, Vogelsang said, as undeveloped space downtown is a little more difficult to come by, but not completely out of the question. The team proposed two Breckenridge sites, including a 16-acre plot near the gondola. There also is ample acreage on Coyne Valley Road — 93 acres, the team said — could serve as an alternate Breckenridge station location.
Stations would have an estimated footprint of 6 to 10 acres, but the mock drawings also featured room for additional commercial and residential development near each station.
“We think bringing the facility right into town (Breckenridge) allows you to work with development already in place and capitalize off the population density around the station,” Vogelsang said. “Existing development is great because it would be able to support the local ridership base and the tourist ridership base, but the stations could also spur more development in other parts of the county (if desired).”
Besides the sites in Summit’s resort communities, the team identified two potential station sites in Silverthorne and one in Frisco. All three proposals are located off state Highway 9. The two sites proposed in Silverthorne are located on opposite sides of I-70.
Stay tuned for part two of this story, which will feature the AGS Project Leadership Team’s ridership projections, funding options and whether they think a high-speed rail system really is in Colorado’s future.