EAGLE — An advanced guideway system (think futuristic high-speed train) for the Interstate 70 corridor between Denver and the Eagle County Regional Airport is still the Colorado Department of Transportation’s top goal, despite a multi-billion dollar price tag.
“An advanced guideway system is something the mountain communities have been seeking almost 20 years,” said David Krutsinger, Department of Transportation transit and rail program manager. “CDOT has come back three or four times suggesting alternatives and those have all been turned away, and the focus has maintained on something that looks like a (high speed train).”
Krutsinger presented the latest findings of an 18-month feasibility study to Eagle County commissioners Nov. 12. The study officially wraps up in December.
“We do know that by 2015, at the very least, the study findings will be included in the statewide transportation plan update,” Krutsinger said.
‘Do citizens want it?’
Basically the study determined that the technology and land are available — making a fast transit system physically possible — but the funding is going to be the greatest challenge.
A year ago, Department of Transportation announced a goal to have part of the system operational by 2025. Krutsinger said it’s more realistic that it will take that long to secure funding for the project.
“The question really is, can we get that funding in place by 2025?” he said. “Do the citizens of these communities decide they really want it? It’s a big investment.”
The price ranges from $10.8 billion to $32.4 billion, depending on which technology is used for a train that has about 120 miles of track.
The three technologies considered were high-speed rail, high-speed “maglev” or magnetic levitation, or a hybrid of the two.
The high-speed rail is most expensive because it can only climb at a 3 percent grade and would require extensive tunneling. A maglev system has better climbing capabilities and would require less tunneling, but is still costly at $25.3 billion.
Both the rail and maglev have potential speeds of 150 to 180 mph, but not if the I-70 corridor is used. The I-70 corridor is too tight and curvy to allow top speeds but it’s also more expensive to build a system independently from the freeway infrastructure.
A maglev hybrid alignment that utilizes parts of the corridor appears to be the most cost efficient, between $10.8 billion and $13.3 billion. The cheaper option would be relatively slow — 100 to 120 mph. The second route would allow speeds of 120 to 150 mph, making it more attractive for passengers.
Krutsinger estimated a ticket from Denver to Vail would cost $26, or about 26 cents a mile.
“For comparison, bus systems cost 15 to 20 cents a mile,” he said.
The mountain corridor guideway system is not the only one the Department of Transportation is planning. Another system would run north-south along the Front Range between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and a study for that is also wrapping up. A total of 16 counties stand to benefit directly, including Eagle, Summit, Clear Creek and Jefferson counties along the mountain corridor.
“All the counties will need to participate to make this happen,” Krutsinger told Eagle County commissioners.
The study determined this kind of transportation will require a major new source of funding at the regional level. Generally a value of at least a half of a penny of state sales tax is needed, and a sales tax increase appears to be the most effective mechanism.
The whole project is planned to be a public-private partnership, but the maximum theoretical private financing limit is $2 billion to $3 billion. More likely the actual private financing amount is going to be half a billion to one billion dollars.
“The multi-billion dollar gap must be filled by local, state and federal funding sources,” Krutsinger said.
Going forward, the steps needed to make headway are:
• Form a regional transit authority.
• Secure voter approval for bonding/taxes or funding stream.
• Complete environmental clearances.
• Obtain federal funding grant agreement.
• Acquire right of way.
As it stands, the Department of Transportation planning remains on track for an advanced guideway system.
“It’s nice talking about future possibilities even if you don’t know if they will ever happen,” said Commissioner Sara Fisher.