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NCA board hears passenger rail proposal

 

January 22, 2020



Passenger rail service from Fort Collins to Pueblo in Colorado could be a reality in seven to 10 years if the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission is successful.

Cue the skepticism.

But Randy Grauberger, project director for the rail commission, told Niwot Community Association Board members at their Jan. 8 meeting that this group has the potential to be successful. “This group has the legislative mandate behind it,” he said. “We are charged to build, not just study. And we have strong interest in making this happen from Governor Polis, along with vision and connections from Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) Director Shoshana Lew.”

While a private group has put forward a proposal for rail lines, Grauberger said having the state behind this commission’s work gives it more strength.

“We know that we can’t rely on I-25 to be the solution to our Colorado transportation needs. With our population growth, I-25 will soon come to a screeching halt,” Grauberger said.

The commission was created by legislation in 2017 with $2.5 million to study proposals. It is housed under CDOT. Membership includes one representative each from five area councils of government including North Front Range metropolitan area, Denver, Pikes Peak area, Pueblo, and South Central; a representative from RTD; two citizen advocates for public rail; one representative each from Burlington Northern and Union Pacific railroads; and one representative from the Southeast Colorado counties served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief rail line. Non-voting members include an Amtrak rep, a CDOT rep and a rep from the Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

In October 2019, the commission submitted a planning grant application to the US Department of Transportation to evaluate the feasibility of extending Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line from La Junta to Pueblo and Colorado Springs. “We are using that as a start to the larger project,” Grauberger said.

The group is using an integrated planning process with the federal agencies that must approve the project, Grauberger said. “We expect that to speed the approval process,” he said.

If all goes well, the commission plans that in 2021 it will be far enough along to work with the state legislature to draw up the governance structure for the rail project. The group also plans to apply for “significant” federal funding, but knows that some sort of taxing structure -- sales tax or a special taxing authority -- will be necessary. They will also explore public-private ventures. Rough costs are estimated at about $5.2 billion for the 173-mile project.

Early public polling shows about 80 percent support for the rail line, which drops to 61 percent when the estimated costs are added to the question, Grauerberger said.

“You will have a bigger problem with getting support in the northern metro areas since RTD has not followed through on its promise for Fast Tracks rail in this area,” pointed out NCA member Jeff Knight.

“We know the RTD bias will be a big hurdle for us,” Grauberger acknowledged. “We definitely need to talk about it frankly with everyone up here. But we think we can show that this project is on sound financial footing and will happen.”

NCA President David Limbach said the NCA would be willing to disseminate information and survey its members about the project as needed.

More information can be found at http://www.frontrangepassengerrail.com.

In other business, NCA members unanimously approved using excess funds from the Niwot Veterans Banner project to make a $500 grant to the Niwot Cookie Moms. According to NCA board member Kathy Koehler, that amount will pay for one mailing of boxes to service members. The group also approved an Eagle Scout project request for $200 from Thomas Horn. Horn is rebuilding the secure storage area for band and orchestra instruments at Niwot High School.

Board member Liz Marr reported that Boulder County Commissioners are asking the subdivision roads groups and county transportation officials to find a permanent solution for funding subdivision roads rehabilitation. “The commissioners would like to have this situation resolved by the end of 2020,” Marr said. “They seem to be leaning toward a countywide tax solution of no more than 1 mill of property tax increase.” Marr will continue to report any progress to the NCA.

 

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