By Gene Davis, DENVER DAILY NEWS
The Colorado Department of Transportation yesterday announced that Mark Imhoff has been named as the director for the state’s new Division of Transit and Rail.
But critics of high-speed rail have one piece of advice for Imhoff — stay away from a transportation system that they believe is neither cost efficient nor financially efficient.
The Division of Transit and Rail was created by legislation last year to oversee a statewide transit program. The program has the authority to promote, plan, design, finance, operate, maintain and contract for transit services such as passenger rail, buses and advanced guideway systems. An initial goal of the program is to explore new transit and rail services, including high-speed rail, through Colorado.
Meanwhile, Randal O;Toole, a research fellow at the Independence Institute, a Golden-based libertarian think tank, is hoping that Imhoff will stay away from promoting or implementing high-speed rail. O’Toole argued that rail lines are expensive and limit where people can go. He favors building more highways that can “go far more places and for a cheaper cost.”
“If you look at the history of transportation you see that we adapt new technologies when they are faster, cheaper and more efficient than old ones,” he said. “But rail technology is slow, expensive and inconvenient. There’s no reason why anyone would adopt rail technology in today’s transportation world.”
Criticisms of, support for high-speed rail
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 — California — 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.”
O’Toole worries that taxpayers in Colorado would also end up paying for high-speed rail since the federal government has said that at least 20 percent of the funding for the high-speed rail projects must come from local taxpayers, who also must pay for the operating costs.
But Danny Katz, state director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, said it makes sense for the state to look at all possible transportation options that could move the people who will be “flooding into the state” within the next 30 years. He doesn’t believe the state can build enough roads to properly accommodate the influx of people. Katz pointed to a study conducted by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority issued this year that found high-speed rail routes would be economically and technologically feasible throughout the state.
“It seems premature to write high-speed rail off when it hasn’t been built anywhere in the country,” he said.
Provision of controversial FASTER program
The new Division of Transit and Rail was created by a provision of FASTER, a controversial transportation plan that raised vehicle registration fees to help fix the state’s transportation infrastructure. A provision of FASTER provides that $5 million of FASTER funds be allocated to the State Transit and Rail Fund.
The federal government is covering more than 75 percent of the $24.7-million budget for the 2011 fiscal year for the grant funding that will be administered by the new division. The remaining budget provides for initial staffing, including Imhoff’s salary of $114,948 per year, and funds for developing the State Rail Plan and High-Speed Rail Connectivity Study.
Prior to coming to CDOT, Imhoff was managing principal at a firm and oversaw a contract for RTD’s FasTracks program. Imhoff also served as a senior manager at RTD. His initial goal when he starts his new job today is to figure out everything that’s going on, bring more visibility to CDOT and look for creative solutions to the future of transportation for Colorado.
“It’s been 50 years since the interstate system was introduced, and if you look at every aspect of our society we do things differently than we did 50 years ago,” he said. “The same thing needs to happen with transportation.”