Passenger rail board’s first meeting begins work on ‘rapidly’ bringing service to Front Range
Amtrak’s California Zephyr train arrives at Denver’s Union Station on Sept. 2, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
With a few words uttered over Zoom Friday morning, Colorado transportation officials adjourned the final meeting of one railroad commission and convened the first-ever meeting of another, beginning a new chapter in the state’s long-running efforts to bring passenger rail service to cities along the Front Range.
The hybrid meeting marked a changing of the guard from the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, a panel convened by state lawmakers five years ago to study the project’s potential, to the Front Range Passenger Rail District, a newly established body with more authority to make it happen — including by raising the necessary funds through a districtwide tax hike.
“Welcome aboard, folks,” said Jim Souby, a passenger rail advocate who has chaired the Passenger Rail Commission since last year and has been appointed to continue as chair of the new rail district.
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The Front Range Passenger Rail District was created by legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2021, and tasked with “planning, designing, developing, financing, constructing, operating, and maintaining a passenger rail system” along the Interstate 25 corridor. Though no plans have yet been finalized, the routes studied by the former commission generally envisioned service between Pueblo and Fort Collins, with potential extensions north into Wyoming or south to Trinidad, where the route could connect to Amtrak’s existing Southwest Chief line between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Through a combination of federal grants and appropriations from the state Legislature, rail commissioners and staff at the Colorado Department of Transportation have secured funding for certain preliminary planning work expected to be completed between now and 2024.
Two of the largest milestones on the road to completing the rail line will be winning approval from the federal government under the National Environmental Policy Act and securing funding from Colorado voters through a ballot measure. To place a tax measure on the ballot, the district’s 17-member board of directors would need to approve a proposal on a two-thirds vote. That’s unlikely to happen before 2024 at the earliest, based on a timeline presented to the commission on Friday.
Souby noted that fulfilling NEPA requirements for large transportation projects can take five years or more, but said the district’s board aims to shorten that timeline.
“This system has to materialize in a way the public can understand and support in short order,” Souby said. “This is a very elaborate and detailed process, but we want to keep the pressure on to make sure we get this done as effectively, but also as rapidly as possible.”
The Front Range rail proposal has long been identified as a top candidate for federal Amtrak funding. But commissioners cautioned that in the wake of the passage of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, which contained $66 billion in new funding for passenger rail, Colorado could still face stiff competition in securing federal grants.
“Amtrak has said don’t count your money before you have it in hand,” Souby said in response to a question from Longmont Mayor Joan Peck, one of the board’s new members. “We have always been portrayed, up until recently, as one of the top four corridor projects. … They’ve cautioned us that we have a lot of competition out there.”
“We’re in a great position as a district to maintain a strong competitive position,” he added. “But it is going to take all hands pitching in, and we’re going to have to be careful about keeping our act together.”
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