Study suggests high-speed transit system to mountains could provide economic benefits

Traffic backs up along I-70.
David Gidley / Summit Daily File Photo

A high-speed transit system through the mountain corridor could serve as a major economic boon to communities on the Western Slope, according to a new study recently published by Development Research Partners.

A high-speed transit system — likely in the form of a train that would carry passengers and light freight between Denver International Airport and Eagle County Regional Airport — was listed in the 2011 Record of Decision issued by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration as a potential long-term solution to dealing with congestion on Interstate 70.

Late last year, stakeholders — including the I-70 Coalition, CDOT and Summit and Eagle counties, among others — funded a study to look at the potential economic impact a transit system could have on the mountain corridor.

“High-speed transit is one of three components of the long-term plan for the I-70 mountain corridor that was issued by the Federal Highways Administration and the Colorado Department of Transportation,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit organization representing 28 local governments and businesses in the area. “While funding remains a challenge, this study provides valuable information for communities along the corridor and for CDOT and local transportation planners to take into account when considering the financial feasibility of a high-speed transit system in the mountain corridor.”

Visitor impacts

Visitors are a huge part of the economy on the Western Slope. In 2018, an estimated 25 million visitors came through the I-70 mountain corridor to recreate, more than 9.2 million of which were out-of-state visitors.

According to the study, about 85% of all visitors use I-70, adding about 6.7 million vehicles to the roadway every year — about half of all traffic. A high-speed transit system, which is hypothetically expected to carry about 5.4 million passengers a year, could mean as many as 4.2 million additional visitors, resulting in almost $550 million in additional spending each year on things like lodging, restaurants, entertainment and retail.

The study presupposes the additional spending would be able to directly support more than 4,600 new employees in mountain communities, totaling more than $150 million in wages each year.

Economic impacts of a high-speed transit system connecting Metro Denver to the I-70 mountain corridor.
Courtesy Development Research Partners

Business impacts

One of the issues a high-speed transit system could help address is the high number of individuals commuting into the mountain corridor to work from their homes on the Front Range.

In 2017, about 40% of employment in the mountain corridor was in the leisure and hospitality industries, according to the study. But employment in the area has grown at only about half the rate of the metro Denver region since 2001 due to factors including limited residential development, high costs of commuting along I-70 and a lack of workers.

A high-speed transit system connecting metro Denver to the mountain corridor could help enlarge the available workforce in western areas of the state. The study notes that only about 45% of workers in the corridor also live in the mountains and almost 30% of workers are coming from the metro Denver area.

The study predicts that by reducing congestion and commuting costs, commuters from the Front Range could comprise about 4.2% of high-speed transit users, translating into an additional 1,560 workers traveling to the area for work, more than $130 million in additional corridor output and a $64 million increase in wage and salary income.

Resident impacts

There are currently a little over 117,000 people living in the I-70 mountain corridor, though the population is expected to grow by about 1.4% a year through 2028. A high-speed transit system likely would allow for further increase in population, spurred by the aforementioned economic growth predicted in the study and increased employment opportunities brought on by greater demand for goods and services from visitors, according to the study.

Assuming the distribution of workers remains similar, with about 45% of the workforce living in the corridor, the forecasted growth in new employees spurred by the transit system would mean more than 2,000 new workers living in the corridor.

Based on the number of workers per household, the total increase in population would be around 3,350, taking in an estimated income of more than $71 million, according to the study. The new residents would spend an estimated $31.5 million in the mountain corridor each year, which would support an even further increase in the employment base of another 208 workers.

Between the growth in workforce caused by increased visitors to the area, easier commuting from the Front Range and new employees moving to the Western Slope, the study predicts as many as 6,428 new employees expected to earn about $230 million a year in total if a high-speed transit system were built.

Development and travel impacts

With a substantial increase in visitor and resident spending with the potential introduction of a high-speed transit system, there also would be impacts on development across the corridor.

The study predicts that population growth would necessitate the construction of about 1,360 new housing units, valued at just less than $640 million. Additionally, an increased demand for goods and services could drive more than 2 million square feet of commercial development, valued at $516 million.

A new transit system also would affect travel costs, with potentially major time savings and lower vehicle fuel and maintenance costs. The study predicts a total of $12.7 million in travel time saved per year, with commuters from the metro Denver area receiving the highest benefit with almost $8.5 million saved.

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