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June 12, 2013
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Interstate 70 high-speed rail ridership projections fall short of expectations

For the Colorado Department of Transportation and other stakeholders involved in the study of a high-speed rail that would connect Denver with the mountain resort communities, one thing is becoming clear. Initial projections of potential demand for a train system were off, and off by millions.

Officials close to an ongoing Interregional Connectivity Study (ICS) — commissioned to investigate the plausibility and cost of a rail servicing central Colorado — are realizing earlier expectations of the number of people who would use such a system were over estimated by more than 100 percent.

“We’re a little bit disappointed with the ridership numbers,” said Mike Riggs, a consultant on the ICS study, who gave a presentation on the progress of the project in Silverthorne Tuesday evening. “They’re not as big as we’d hoped.”

A study completed in 2010 by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA) indicated a high-speed train providing service along the Front Range and out to Eagle County could attract as many as 7 or 8 million passengers per year, whose fares would help fund the operation and management of the system. But using what Riggs called a more open, transparent and ultimately accurate model to gather data, officials conducting the ICS study are finding actual ridership will likely be closer to 3 million per year.

It’s a discovery that could have significant consequences for the feasibility study, which is investigating whether a large-scale train system is physically, economically and politically possible in Colorado.

Models vary slightly based on the type of train — faster trains can cover a commute in less time and would attract more riders — but with a presumed fare of just under $24 per person, riders would generate a little more than $76,000 annually. It’s only enough money to cover roughly 85 percent of the $89,000 per year it is expected to cost to run the system.

The earlier RMRA study anticipated fares would cover 150 percent of operation and management costs, charging less than $20 per person for a train ticket.

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said he hopes to double check the models used to collect the most recent ridership data, saying accurate projections will be crucial to making the project happen.

But the overestimation of ridership isn’t a poison pill for the proposal. Neither study imagined ticket sales could even come close to covering the real expense of a high-speed rail system: construction. Early estimations put the price tag just to build the train in the $20-$25 billion dollar range. CDOT’s annual budget for the entire state of Colorado is just $1 billion.

“This system is never going to generate enough money to pay for the capital costs,” Riggs said. “So the best we can do is come up with enough money to cover the operation and management. If that’s the case, then that’s good. It’s just now a matter of figuring out how to come up with the amount of money that we need to build the system.”

It will likely require new tax revenue, which has to win the approval of Colorado voters, to fully fund the system.

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said he hopes to double check the models used to collect the most recent ridership data, saying accurate projections will be crucial to making the project happen.

“It will be hard to sell to the voters,” he said. “These are expensive proposals. We want to make sure that the numbers are sound.”

State transportation officials imagine a rail system that would create a crosshairs over central Colorado, providing service along the Front Range as far south as Colorado Springs as well as western access with an Advanced Guideway System stopping in Summit County and continuing out to Eagle County.

Planners are examining routes for the rail that could include significant underground elements, including a proposed tunnel under the Ten Mile Range connecting stops in Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.

The ICS is currently in the second of three phases.

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The Summit Daily Updated Jun 19, 2013 01:44PM Published Jun 13, 2013 12:26PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.