High-speed rail poses high costs on Interstate 70

Caddie Nath
Special to the Daily

It’s a vision for the future of transit that would make the Jetsons proud: a high-speed, clean-powered train capable of making the sometimes-treacherous trek up the 120-mile Interstate 70 corridor from Jefferson County to the Eagle County Regional Airport in under an hour.

But the state transportation department’s private partners in the industry — experts in the train-building business — say such a machine is possible.

The question is whether Colorado can afford it.

“Financial feasibility is the last piece in determining the overall feasibility of an (advanced guideway system) along the I-70 mountain corridor,” Colorado Department of Transportation Division of Transit and Rail director Mark Imhoff stated in a recent release. “Like partnering with private-sector technology providers helped us determine technical feasibility of an AGS, we look forward to private sector concessionaires and financial providers helping us determine whether or not Colorado can afford such a system.”

The proposal is an expensive one. Transportation officials expect the total cost of the system could approach $20 billion. CDOT’s annual budget for road maintenance, upkeep and expansion for the entire state is only $1 billion.

The best estimates indicate ticket sales for an AGS would only cover operational expenses, leaving taxpayers to cover construction costs.

“None of us have extra money right now,” CDOT rail manager David Krutsinger told the Summit Daily in a recent interview. “If we’re going to use taxpayer dollars, we have to be very sure that what we’re buying on behalf of the public is a good use of money.”

CDOT issued a request for financial information to private companies this month, asking them to provide feedback on funding and financing options, such as project-generated revenues, public-funding financing capacity, structure and cost. Transportation officials want the system completed by 2025, and the input from the private sector will help determine whether that goal is financially possible.

The agency asked interested companies last year whether a train with the components necessary to be useful on the steep and sometimes slippery I-70 mountain corridor was physically possible. The answer was a resounding yes.

Industry experts came back with designs for elevated guideway systems, powered by magnets, electricity and air, that can travel hundreds of miles per hour, ferry cars or transport passengers in individual cars summoned with a smartphone. Companies pitched trains powered by solar energy and hydrogen, controlled by computers and capable of cruising from the Front Range to Keystone in 45 minutes.

“I flew in from Pittsburg,” Colorado Maglev Group project manager David O’Loughlin said at an AGS expo in December. “The idea would be, I have my skis with me on the plane. They just put them on the MagLev vehicle and I can be in Vail in an hour. That’s possible with this technology.”

But all of the proposed systems came with price tags of millions of dollars per mile.

In the end, there were three categories of feasible rail models identified for the corridor: systems that exclusively follow the existing alignment of I-70, those that run a different course than the highway and those that could do both.

The potential routes for the rail system, along with performance characteristics of different technological proposals, are being analyzed to develop ridership and cost projections for a proposed system, while CDOT officials say they are collaborating with mountain communities to determine the locations of future train stations, each of which would have a large footprint.

Responses to the request for financial information are due by June 28. The determination of the overall feasibility of the proposed system is expected in the fall.

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