Weighing the I-70 monorail election issue | SteamboatToday.com

Weighing the I-70 monorail election issue

Steamboat officials are wary of supporting Amendment 26

— Colorado voters are being asked this fall to give up $19 to help fund a $50 million feasibility study of a monorail intended to zap 10,000 people per hour along Interstate 70 between the airports in Denver and Eagle.

Amendment 26 would not authorize construction of the monorail; it would merely clear the way for the state to keep $50 million of the $927 million budget surplus from 2000 and divert it to the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority. The authority proposes to use the money to study the electromagnetic propulsion systems needed to send a passenger monorail up and over the Continental Divide.

However, a Steamboat Springs man who formerly served on the Colorado Department of Transportation’s committee studying the I-70 corridor, said he’d like to see the state take a closer look at what is being done in other countries before it commits that much money to the monorail idea.

“My biggest opposition is that spending $50 million just to study the project seems excessive,” Ulrich Salzgeber said.

State Highway Commissioner Bill Haight of rural Steamboat Springs said he’s intrigued with the idea of the monorail. But for that very reason, he’s opposed to Amendment 26. Haight served on the authority before he committed to the costly monorail study. He’s worried that the authority is going too fast, increasing the risk that the monorail could fall flat before it has a real chance to mature as a concept.

“I think it’s premature to throw $50 million at it,” Haight said. “I think Amendment 26 has a chance to pass, but if it does, I think it could sink it forever. To me, it’s intriguing, and the more we can do to look at it, and keep it on the table,” the better.

Proponents of Amendment 26 say that building the monorail would be cheaper than adding traffic lanes to I-70, and the monorail could move 10,000 people an hour. That’s the equivalent of six lanes of traffic.

In addition, they say that a monorail would be cleaner, quieter, more efficient and have less of an impact on wildlife than highway widening.

If the monorail, or an alternative solution, isn’t developed, its proponents say motorists will face stop-and-go traffic from Denver to Vail even if the state builds additional lanes on I-70.

The current estimated cost of the project is $4 billion, less than the cost of adding new lanes to the highway.

Amendment 26 would give the Authority three years to test the monorail system. If the entire $50 million is not spent before Jan. 1, 2005, the balance must be returned to the state. Funding for construction of the line would be sought at a later date.

The state legislature established the Guideway Authority in 1998 and directed it to develop a plan for the design, financing and construction of a fixed guideway system along I-70 from Denver International Airport to Eagle County Airport.

Salzgeber is the manager of Alpine Taxi. He added that his opposition to Amendment 26 isn’t based on any potential impact on his own business. He agrees Colorado needs to do something to alleviate traffic on I-70 between Denver and the mountains. But he doesn’t believe Colorado officials have looked closely enough at what is being done in places like Switzerland.

Salzgeber said he is intrigued with a Swiss train that ferries tourists’ cars into alpine villages like Zermatt. That system addresses one of the flaws in Colorado’s plan to build a passenger monorail into the Vail Valley, Salzgeber said namely, once people arrive in Eagle county, they’ll lack personal transportation to visit other destinations north and south of the I-70 corridor.

The obvious traffic bottleneck is at the Continental Divide, where the Eisenhower Tunnel affords only two westbound and two eastbound lanes in a pair of tunnel bores.

However, opponents of Amendment 26 say the monorail would not provide direct access to many places that people visit in the mountains.

A “fixed guideway system” could mean a variety of modes of transportation including light rail, traditional passenger rail and monorails. After a preliminary evaluation of the different technologies, the Authority decided to pursue testing of a monorail system that relies on magnetic propulsion and braking. It would be designed to climb steep grades at high speeds. It has yet to be determined exactly how and where it would go under the Continental Divide.

One of the unknowns surrounding the monorail, according to Haight, is that it combines two innovative technologies that have never been employed in tandem before.

The monorail would be required to climb steep grades. The theory, yet to be tested, is that this could be accomplished using both magnetic propulsion for acceleration and braking, as well as a magnetic levitation, or “mag-lev” system to support the monorail cars.

Colorado’s national rail technology test center in Pueblo is among the best anywhere, Haight said.

Other unknowns include the actually cost to build the monorail and the number of passengers it could attract. The monorail might be ideal for airline passengers flowing into DIA who are destined for ski vacations. But less ideal for travelers who want to go 20 or 100 miles beyond the last monorail terminal to hike in the mountains.

Salzgeber thinks it’s possible the monorail could feed resort shuttles destined for Steamboat. But he too worries about monorail passengers who will wish they had private transportation once the first leg of their journey is complete.

Haight said people who believe the monorail would solve all of the problems on the I-70 mountain corridor are working under a false perception. Even if the monorail is built in the future, Colorado will need corresponding highway improvements, and the state should continue working toward them as it methodically studies the monorail.

“I think you’ve got to keep I-70 traffic moving in a lot of ways,” Haight said, “and keep working on the fixed guideway.”

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