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Colorado leaders 'connecting the dots' on high-speed rail

(The following story by Jeffrey Leib appeared on The Denver Post website on March 30, 2010.)

DENVER, Colo. — A study of possible high-speed, intercity rail for Colorado has found that lines between Fort Collins and Pueblo and between Denver International Airport and Eagle County have the best "operating and cost-benefit results" of the options evaluated.

The full system carries a $21.1 billion price tag, but Harry Dale, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, which produced the study, said the rail system would probably be built in phases.

The study, which is available at rockymountainrail.org, said the most feasible option for intercity rail in Colorado assumes passengers would pay fares averaging about 35 cents a mile, with one-way trips from downtown Denver to Vail in the

Interstate 70 corridor and from Denver to Pueblo in the Interstate 25 corridor, each costing about $40.

"In the I-25 corridor, this option produces travel times much faster (90-100 mph average speeds) than the automobile," according to the study's executive summary.

"There is sufficient demand to support trains every 15 to 30 minutes throughout the day," the document says. "In the I-70 corridor, while train speeds are lower due to the severe curve and grade limitations, travel times (60-70 mph average speeds) are still competitive with travel by automobile."

The feasibility study, which took 18 months to complete and cost $1.4 million, said the DIA-Eagle/Fort Collins-Pueblo rail network could carry up to 35 million passengers a year by 2035, generating more than $750 million in fare revenue.

The Colorado Department of Transportation participated in the study and CDOT will continue to analyze the state's prospects for constructing high-speed rail.

The study looked at alternatives that extended the lines farther north, west and south.

Dale, a Clear Creek County commissioner, said the study is the first step in what could be a decades-long effort to conduct more detailed environmental reviews of the potential for high-speed rail in Colorado.

"It might be 10 to 20 years before we actually build anything," he said, noting economic conditions could be far more favorable for construction of intercity rail at that time.

"We do not have to build all of this at once," he added, but rather the rail project will almost certainly be built in phases.

The study identifies a $3.32 billion rail segment from DIA to downtown Denver and then south to Colorado Springs as a likely first phase.

The next phase would extend high-speed rail in the I-70 corridor from downtown Denver to the Summit County resorts of Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain — "likely the most difficult and expensive segment to construct because of extensive tunneling needed for I-70 crossing the Continental Divide."

The study estimates this phase would cost $9.55 billion.

The high-speed rail segment from DIA to downtown Denver would not compete directly with RTD's planned East Corridor commuter train that will link the airport and Denver's Union Station, Dale said.

The Regional Transportation District's airport train will serve local transit patrons with a 30-minute trip for what might be a $5 fare, he said, while the high-speed alternative might make the same trip in 12 minutes for a $15 fare.

"This is not meant to be fare-subsidized," Dale said of the proposed high-speed rail system. "Average speeds must be superior to travel by car, or nobody will ride. There have got to be time savings to make it worthwhile."

While a full high-speed rail network might cost up to $21 billion, that price tag would be counterbalanced by long-term economic benefits totaling $33 billion from jobs, income and economic wealth created by the project, the study says.

Backers of the plan also hope to bid for future federal dollars for high-speed rail.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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