Rail service possible | SteamboatToday.com

Rail service possible

Steamboat, Craig join Rocky Mountain Rail Authority

Brandon Gee

— The cities of Steamboat Springs and Craig have joined a group exploring high-speed, passenger rail service that could include a spur extending from South Routt to Craig.

The Hayden Town Board also has voted to join the multi-jurisdictional governmental entity known as the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority. Hayden’s membership will become official once it’s ratified by the authority, which is exploring the possibility of modern rail track along the Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 corridors. The system could continue into Wyoming and potentially tie in to similar rail networks already in the works in Utah and New Mexico. It is anticipated the I-70 stretch would include two major spurs: one to Aspen and another through South Routt, Steamboat and Craig.

Routt County already has joined the authority. County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said she is glad that all other incorporated municipalities in Routt and Moffat counties have decided to join.

“As with any board, the more representation you have from a region, the stronger that region’s voice is,” Mitsch Bush said.

Doug Lehnen, mayor pro-tem of Castle Rock and that city’s representative to the rail authority, agreed.

“It’s very important to have both county and city municipalities involved because it’s a combination of both that it will affect,” Lehnen said. “I know exactly what I want out of Castle Rock itself.”

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The first step for the rail authority is a $1.6 million feasibility study, being paid for by a $1.2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation and matching funds from the member jurisdictions.

“Hopefully, by mid-April, we’ll have that contract finalized and start the study,” Lehnen said.

The study is to take no longer than 18 months. The biggest question it will answer is cost, which one rough estimate puts at $11.3 billion. But Lehnen said it also will address rail technologies, ridership and station locations.

“The feasibility study will show us what we need to do,” Mitsch Bush said. “If the study shows that it’s feasible, then we can move to the next level. If I had to bet, if I was a betting person, I would guess that there’s some level of feasibility.”

Getting on track

The speed with which a high-speed, passenger rail system could be installed will depend on how much money is available and when.

But neither Lehnen nor Mitsch Bush is predicting the system could come on line quickly. Mitsch Bush said a realistic timetable for the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority’s work likely is 15 to 20 years.

The Colorado Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel recently released a report estimating that without a new source of funding, there will be a $51 billion funding shortage to sustain Colorado’s existing transportation infrastructure by 2030.

The panel also identified new sources of funding, but Lehnen said Gov. Bill Ritter has made health care and education higher priorities for the time being.

“A lot of us are thinking that we might not see any money until 2011,” Lehnen said.

Another possibility is federal funding, which is why the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority hopes its feasibility study will help it earn a High Speed Rail Corridor Designation from the Federal Railroad Administration. The federal rail authority already has awarded 10 such designations, but only plans to award one more. Colorado is competing with Texas for the final spot.

“If we can get that designation, that will mean money,” Mitsch Bush said.

Mitsch Bush said passenger rail service would provide many benefits to the Yampa Valley, including reduced pollution and traffic.

“If we had high-speed rail, that would certainly contribute to relieving congestion,” Mitsch Bush said.

She noted that sitting in traffic leads to reductions in worker productivity and less time spent with family.

“It’s a cost to our businesses, a cost to our economy and a cost to our country,” Mitsch Bush said. “Transit and rail solve these problems. : It’s harder to think long-term, but we have to.”