By Gene Davis, DENVER DAILY NEWS
A wide-ranging group of experts and scholars yesterday argued that some form of high-speed rail should play a large part in Colorado’s transportation future.
But they acknowledged that no new high-speed rail line could be built for at least 10 years, a significant project would be very expensive and most lawmakers currently don’t have the political will to support a substantial high-speed rail project.
The variety of experts yesterday spoke at the “Intercity Passenger Rail Opportunities and Challenges For Colorado” forum held at the University of Denver campus. The event went on for more than five hours and included speakers like Ira Schreiber, president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association, and Rod Diridon, executive director at the Mineta Transportation Institute.
Presenters continually argued that faster high-speed rail lines would be economically viable and sustainable for Colorado. Rocky Mountain Rail Authority Chairman Harry Dale discussed the feasibility study his group did on the economic viability of high-speed rail lines along the I-25 and I-70 corridors. The study found that rail lines could be profitable if they have average speeds of at least 80 miles per hour.
“Speed equals feasibility,” he said.
But the faster the rail line the more it costs. The starting cost for a rail line that would go fast enough to be economically viable starts around $20 billion for both the I-70 and I-25 corridors, according to Dale. The study also found that rail lines would need to be built on both corridors to attract enough riders to make the project worthwhile.
Scholars at the Independence Institute, a Golden-based libertarian think tank, believe that the high price tag makes high-speed rail a bad idea for Colorado. The Institute’s Randal O’Toole said this week that new transportation technologies are adopted when they’re cheaper, more convenient and faster than what is currently around. He believes that the high-speed rail being considered would not fulfill any of those requirements, an that the state should focus on building more roads and increasing public transportation via busses.
But Dale and other high-speed rail advocates argue that the projected population growth for Denver and Colorado means that the state must think long term, and that a high speed rail line is a necessary avenue to take going forward. Dale maintains that a high-speed rail line could attract customers while helping the environment.
“Nobody’s going to put a gun to your head and say, ‘You’re not driving today, you’re taking the train,” he said. “You need your free will to ride the train.”
Historically, American transportation builders build roads at about 8 percent over the original projected cost. Rail lines on average run about 40 percent over the original projected cost, according to O’Toole.
Additionally, the U.S. state with the one existing high-speed rail project in the works Ń California Ń has been marred by complaints that the passenger trains could be noisy and that ridership numbers would be significantly lower than originally predicted. One councilmember in Palo Alto, Calif., offered a proposal this month to state that the city has no confidence in the High Speed Rail Authority Board and to ask all government officials to stop funding the rail project. The councilmember said the taxpayers and community would have to pick up much of the cost for high-speed rail because the authority plans on building the train system “on the cheap.”
Dale expressed confidence at yesterday’s forum that the state could potentially reduce costs by 30 percent by building part of the rail tracks on site at a manufacturing center and then sending it out to the site. But he implied that manufacturing the module sections on site at a manufacturing center would not have any negative effect on the final rail line.
CDOT’s plan going forward
Yesterday’s forum comes after the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) last week argued via its newest study on proposed improvements to the I-70 mountain corridor that an advanced guideway system such as an elevated, high-speed rail line should play a central part in relieving traffic congestion for the area in the future. Several high-profile employees from CDOT, including the I-70 Mountain Corridor Environmental Manager, participated in a panel yesterday on planning for intercity passenger rail.
CDOT had previously eliminated the idea of implementing an advanced guideway system because they originally put a $4 billion cap on potential improvements to the I-70 corridor. But following an outcry from stakeholders, CDOT embarked on a “lengthy process” to come to an agreement with the stakeholders that resulted in the recommendation of an advanced guideway system.
CDOT acknowledged that they currently don’t have nearly enough money to fund such a project. It’s critical that some action is taken on the corridor, though, since weekend travel time is expected to be approximately three times higher by 2035 than it is today.