Front Range rail district bill wins bipartisan support in first hearing

Special district would be authorized to ask voters for a 0.8% sales tax increase

Amtrak's California Zephyr, left, stops 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)

Lawmakers on the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would represent a major step forward for Colorado’s long-running efforts to establish passenger rail service between cities along the Front Range.

The panel approved Senate Bill 21-238 on a 6-1 vote, with state Sen. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, the only member in opposition.

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Sponsored by top state lawmakers led by Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, the bill would create a Front Range Passenger Rail District comprising all or part of 13 counties between the Wyoming and New Mexico borders. The new state entity would have a broad range of powers, including the authority to ask voters within the district to approve up to a 0.8% sales tax hike to fund rail construction and operations.

“We are still years away from a fully operational Front Range Passenger Rail System, and much work will still need to happen,” state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said in Tuesday’s committee hearing. “But this is a good next step.”

In addition to Garcia and Zenzinger, the bill has been co-sponsored by nearly half of the members of the state Senate, including Democratic Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and GOP Sens. Kevin Priola, Cleave Simpson and Don Coram.

“Discussions on how Front Range rail would support our infrastructure, accommodate our growing population, lower emissions and invest in our rural communities are not new,” Garcia said. “But we have an unprecedented opportunity right now with the momentum coming out of the White House and the Biden administration to make this a reality.”

An infrastructure plan unveiled by the administration earlier this month would spend up to $80 billion to expand passenger rail services across the country, but officials at Amtrak, a federally chartered corporation, have said that Front Range rail is a priority with or without the additional funding. Amtrak president Stephen Gardner, however, told reporters on April 12 that the extra $80 billion in the Biden plan would allow the agency to “go faster and do more.”

“The timing of this bill could not be better,” Zenzinger told her fellow lawmakers Tuesday.

Boulder route preferred

Many details of the proposed line have yet to be finalized. Service is likely to run between Fort Collins and Pueblo, with possible connections to Cheyenne and to the exiting Amtrak Southwest Chief line, which serves Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. And the state’s Passenger Rail Commission has closely studied three possible alignments for the route through the Denver metro area.

Boulder route ‘recommended’ by commissioners as Front Range rail momentum builds

Members of the commission voted on Friday to formally recommend one of those three options — a route that would include a stop in Boulder and align with the Regional Transportation District’s long-delayed Northwest Rail Line in the same corridor. The decision is not yet final, but the Boulder route has gained favor among many state and local officials due to the potential for the two projects to collaborate and share costs.

Dozens of witnesses testified in support of SB-238 on Tuesday, including Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, who said that investments in rail and other forms of public transit are needed to meet capacity demands for Colorado’s fast-growing population.

“Eighty-five percent of Colorado’s population lives along the Front Range, and rapid growth is expected to continue for the next several decades,” Lew said. “We can’t simply build our way out of congestion.”

A handful of opponents of the bill also testified, including representatives of the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, a business group.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Tom Norton, a former CDOT director representing NCLA. “There’s a lot of questions to be answered, and a lot of details, particularly in the financing.”

The bill’s supporters, however, said that many of the details regarding the design and financing of Front Range rail service are meant to be evaluated and finalized by the special district that the bill would create.

“This bill only creates the district,” Zenzinger said. “After the district is created, we will have an entity that can then actually deal with these very questions.”

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