Reviving the idea of an I-70 monorail |

Reviving the idea of an I-70 monorail

Consensus for stop-gap highway improvements on Interstate 70 may be narrow, but agreement about mass transit solutions is even more limited. Simply put, there’s nothing to copy, at least not a mass transit system for a high-volume, high-speed mountainous corridor like I-70.

Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) planners introduced the idea of hybrid buses. Such buses would be guided by rails between Golden and Silverthorne, and from Silverthorne would become conventional vehicles. Unlike the Sierra Club, Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom scoffs at the idea that people won’t ride buses.

Lindstrom continues to carry the torch for a monorail of some sort, as has been advocated by mountain residents since 1997. However, absent anything remotely resembling a show-and-tell for how such a monorail in conditions similar to the I-70 corridor would function, backers have been subjected to ridicule. Gov. Bill Owens two years ago dismissed the monorail as an extravagant Disneyland ride.

Owens’ comment was made in anticipation of a vote by Colorado voters two years ago to spend $50 million in research and development of a monorail. A majority of voters in only four counties – Clear Creek, Summit, Lake, and Eagle – among Colorado’s then 63 counties endorsed the plan. Even metropolitan Denver, theoretically the greatest beneficiary of improved I-70 transportation, soundly rejected the idea, as did voters in mass-transit-friendly Aspen and Boulder.

While I-70 is of utmost importance to those living along it, the existing weekend congestion pales in comparison to what many people along the Front Range confront on a daily basis.

Since the monorail vote, monorail boosters grabbed onto the coattails of $4 million in federal studies of a somewhat different kind of monorail technology, called the Urban Maglev Technology Research and Development Program.

Miller Hudson, executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, says a report scheduled for release next year will describe the cost of a monorail using such a technology. That report may point to a magnetic levitation system now under construction in Japan, and how it can be adapted to Colorado.

If that show-and-tell happens, it will be a breakthrough for monorail advocates, who so far have been forced into an imagine-this position. Still at issue, however, is the potential cost and whether people will ride it in sufficient numbers to warrant that cost. While the best-known crush of congestion occurs on I-70 during ski season, the largest numbers actually occur during July and August, when people using the corridor have more dispersed destinations.

CDOT engineer Brian Pinkerton said the two rail-based alternatives for mass transit are too “technologically generic” to avoid getting bogged down in technical aspects. One is a more conventional electrical-powered train, while the second would be a magnetic levitation-powered rail-based vehicle or something similarly unconventional.

Engineers could develop an advanced guideway train for the I-70 corridor, even if no such train now exists anywhere in the world, Pinkerton said. But the larger questions revolve around the cost, the environmental impact and whether people will ride it.

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