High-speed rail needs financing, strong ridership before leaving station
On Tuesday, Nov. 12, members of a state project team met with Summit’s Board of County Commissioners to present data on the feasibility of constructing a high-speed transit system to connect the Front Range to the mountains.
The Advanced Guideway System Project Leadership Team is studying the proposal from four main points of view: available technology, rail alignment, ridership estimates and cost. Earlier, the team discussed the project from the perspective of available technology and outlined potential alignment options for the first phase of the project, between Eagle County Regional Airport and Golden. (See the Thursday, Nov. 14, edition of the Summit Daily News.)
Having put those options on the table, the team then turned to the more vital components of the project — funding and ridership.
It appears from Tuesday’s discussion that the hybrid Maglev alignment is the only feasible option in the dream of constructing a high-speed rail line connecting Eagle County Regional Airport to Golden, and ultimately to Denver International Airport.
Although significantly cheaper than the two other options — high-speed rail and high-speed Maglev, which carry estimated price tags of $32.4 billion and $25.3 billion, respectively — a hybrid Maglev line connecting the two airports would run in the neighborhood of $16.5 billion.
In the theoretical world, David Krutsinger, an AGS project team member and transit and rail program manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the project could garner a max of $2 to $3 billion in funding from the private financing sector. However, a more realistic assumption would be more around $500 million to $1 billion.
Because of the economics of the project, public-private partnerships would be difficult to attract without serious investment from the federal government, Krutsinger said, adding that anticipated transit rates would not be enough to allow local and state officials to acquire bonds to front the cost of the project.
Therefore, the multi-billion dollar gap would have to be filled by local, state and federal funding streams, he said.
One easy option to acquire some of the funds needed would be through a regional sales tax increase. Although the popularity of a tax increase for a rail system is debatable, the team estimates that a half-cent increase in the state sales tax rate would allow project leaders to take advantage of revenues generated on the more populous Front Range and could generate enough funding to pay for a healthy chunk of the cost.
However, sales tax revenue wouldn’t be enough to fund the whole project. Federal dollars would still be required, Krutsinger said, and that takes political support.
From day one the team has worked to rally the support of all 16 counties that would benefit from a high-speed rail system — that includes affected counties on the Front Range, where a companion study to build a high-speed rail system linking Fort Collins to Pueblo also is underway.
Support from local, state and congressional leaders is a vital component of the project’s feasibility, Krutsinger said.
“We’re leaving the door open on the financial piece because we know how important political support is going to be get financing for the project,” he said. “If it’s not politically-backed, it’s not feasible.”
Although nothing gets built without capital, the work invested so far may all be for naught if the team can’t convince CDOT’s Transportation Commission that the rail will mean less cars on Colorado’s two most congested interstates.
Citing a recent meeting with CDOT officials, Peter Grosshuesch, director of community development for the town of Breckenridge, said transportation representatives need to divert a minimum of 30 percent of the traffic off of I-70 to make the cost of the project worth it.
“The rail needs to hit the resorts to meet that minimum threshold, but we also need to know people are going to use it,” he said. “If you can’t get the cars off the road, CDOT is not going to be very interested in going after this.”
Forecasting out to the year 2035, the team estimates a rail system from Golden to Eagle County Regional Airport would attract 3.6 million riders per year, the majority of whom would be using the rail system on the weekends during the winter to visit ski resorts. The Golden-to-DIA extension would increase ridership to 4.6 million riders annually, according to the team’s estimates.
Should both the I-70 and I-25 transportation corridor projects garner Transportation Commission approval, thus linking the High Country to the Front Range, the team estimates ridership on the Golden-to-ECRA line could increase to as much as 6.4 million riders per year.
Taking into consideration the number of passengers in each car traveling from the Front Range to the mountains varies, the team estimates 6.4 million riders equates to about a 20 percent decrease in the amount of cars on the road. Although that could be off by a couple of points depending on actual carpooling statistics, it’s still short of CDOT’s minimum threshold, but meeting those demands reverts back to costs — this time for the consumer.
Although ridership estimates are forecasted out to the year 2035, the team estimated fare costs in 2013 dollars. Right now, the team believes the rail system could be more or less self-sustaining at a consumer rate of about 26 cents to 30 cents per mile.
Hypothetically speaking, at 30 cents per mile a Colorado Springs resident would be charged $30 to travel from home to Vail by way of Denver. At a little more than $3 a gallon, that’s about $10 less than the cost of a tank of gas for the average mid-sized car.
With modern cars boasting 30-plus miles per gallons and ranges close to 400 miles, it raises the question whether a Colorado Springs man on a budget would realistically spend $60 round trip to ski at Vail when a half a tank of gas would accomplish the same goal.
“It might not be cost effective for a family of four spending $25 to $30 a pop on fares,” Krutsinger said. “But congestion on I-70 is going to get worse before it gets better. We think there is a market of people who will pay to ride the rail just to avoid traveling in four hours of traffic (each way).”
After its meeting with Summit County commissioners, the AGS Project Leadership Team traveled to Eagle County for a meeting with commissioners there. More meetings with local elected officials along the I-70 corridor are planned before the team delivers, at the end of this month, its draft report to CDOT’s Transportation Commission.
The team will then convene for a final meeting Dec. 11. A final report will be delivered to the transportation commission shortly after that.
The team expects the transportation commission will issue a decision about the project in January or February of 2014.
“The final point I want to emphasize is ridership is maximized by serving the most activity, both in terms of residential population, and in terms of employment and recreation destinations,” Krutsinger said. “The towns and counties have a great deal of local decision-making authority to channel growth to appropriate locations, and it is important those decisions channel growth to achieve two simultaneous purposes —to deliver the highest possible quality of life for residents and to focus growth to maximize ridership.”
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