Passengers prepare to board Amtrak’s California Zephyr at the Denver Union rail station during its daily 2,438-mile trip to Emeryville/San Francisco from Chicago that takes roughly 52 hours on March 24, 2017, in Denver. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A passenger rail line along the Front Range is closer to becoming reality than ever before — and one of the three routes studied most closely by state officials has emerged as the clear favorite.
Members of the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission voted on Friday to formally recommend an alignment that would include stops in Denver’s Union Station, Broomfield and Boulder as part of its route between Fort Collins and Pueblo.
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Commissioners said that that alignment, often referred to as the “BNSF route” after the railway company that owns much of the track through the corridor, has clear advantages over two other routes that the commission has studied extensively. One alternative alignment would send trains north from Union Station along the Interstate 25 corridor, while the other would bypass Union Station entirely, dropping off Denver-bound passengers at Denver International Airport instead.
A 2020 Colorado Department of Transportation analysis projected that ridership would be highest along the Boulder route. The option has also appealed to transit advocates who hope it could aid the Regional Transportation District’s efforts to complete a long-delayed commuter rail line between Boulder and Denver along the same corridor; the rail commission discussed the possibility of further “collaboration” with RTD on Friday, though the specifics of what it could mean for both projects is yet to be determined.
The commission’s recommendation of the BNSF route comes as lawmakers both in Washington and at the Colorado Capitol move forward with plans that would give Front Range rail a major boost, and after Amtrak officials said earlier this month that the proposed line is one of the agency’s top priorities — with or without new federal funding.
“We are clearly moving toward” the Boulder route, chair Jim Souby said at the commission’s monthly meeting on Friday. He asked his fellow commissioners to formally recommend the alignment as its preferred option in order to provide clarity to the public, as well as state and local officials, as the planning process continues.
“Declaring that we will just simply address the public concerns that we haven’t in any way indicated what route we’re going to use,” Souby said. “There’s confusion, at least in phone calls I’ve been having with leaders, about — where is the commission going? What is the route it prefers?”
The commission voted to approve the recommendation with no members voting against, though several representatives of railroad companies and regional planning organizations abstained. The recommendation is not a final decision, and the line’s final alignment is still subject to a range of federally-required analyses of ridership and environmental impacts.
The Passenger Rail Commission, which was reestablished in 2017 to combine the state’s efforts to manage Amtrak’s existing Southwest Chief line through Lamar and Trinidad as well as to study Front Range service, serves largely in a planning and advisory capacity. But that could soon change, with Colorado lawmakers poised to take some of the state’s biggest steps yet towards making Front Range rail a reality.
Senate Bill 21-238, backed by legislative leaders including Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, would replace the Passenger Rail Commission with a new Front Range Passenger Rail District, an independent state entity with much broader authority, including the power to ask voters to approve a tax to help fund the line’s construction and operations.
The commission also voted on Friday to formally endorse SB-238, which is scheduled for its first committee hearing on April 27.
“The timing is right to create this district, because we have interest both from Amtrak and the potential federal infrastructure package,” said commission vice chair Sal Pace, a former Democratic state representative from Pueblo. “This is all pretty substantial and big news.”
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