About that I-70 monorail to Vail, Colo.
October 23, 2008
There has been a lot of discussion about the monorail along I-70 recently as Ali Hasan has made his support for such a monorail an important plank in his campaign to be elected to the state House of Representatives.
As former COO of Transport Ventures, the international consortium that proposed the high-speed monorail that was on the 2001 statewide ballot, I am writing to explain the situation.
There are several different types of system that are capable of running up I-70, that can go from Denver to Eagle. But that is not the issue ” the dominant consideration is an economic one ” unless we can figure out how the system will attract sufficient riders to be economically viable, it will never be built.
The citizens and politicians can stop the building of a transit system, but they can’t will that it will be built. At the end of the process, that is the decision of the money providers.
Why would anyone ride a transit system? You have to get from your home to a station, buy a ticket, wait for the train, ride with others to the destination station, and then get from there to where you are actually going. Far easier to jump in your car and drive there, even if everyone else is doing the same thing and there is a lot of congestion.
In the U.S., there was no corridor where a rail transit system carried more than 5 percent of the people traveling along it, at least, until very recently.
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This was a reason cited by Gov. Bill Owens for his opposition to a transit system up I-70 ” that at the end of the day, it didn’t make a significant difference to reducing traffic on the highway. The RTD’s light rail system along I-25 is considered a fabulous success and has become a national model ” but it carries just 7-10 percent of the traffic along I-25.
I-70 has several challenges that make it difficult to design an economically viable system:
n The leg from Denver to Vail is the most challenging in the entire 40,000-mile interstate system. It has comparatively sharp twists and turns, it has long, steep climbs, it is subject to snow and wind, and it has a 4,700-foot change in elevation along its length.
n I-70 also passes through beautiful country that demands environmentally sensitive and aesthetically pleasing solutions. The section of I-70 that passes through Glenwood Canyon was the most expensive section of the entire interstate system when it was built.
n There is a only small population base at the mountain end that the system would serve.
n It is a long way from Denver. The system would be much longer (and so more expensive to build) than most transit systems.
I-70 is congested, but 30 percent of the traffic along I-70 is trucks and RVs, or people passing through on their way to somewhere else who never could use the monorail. Capturing 10 percent of the traffic along I-70 would not be sufficient to make a monorail economically viable . We have to do better.
We don’t need a typical transit system. We need one like no other. Millions of dollars and many, many man-years have been spent trying to figure out how ” and I turn now to what we have learned.
Conventional trains are heavy (they have to be or the steels wheels would just spin uselessly on the steel rails), they are too heavy to elevate for any distance, they take tight curves slowly, they can climb only limited grades, they are slow, they can’t stop quickly, and their performance deteriorates as soon as there is snow.
Conventional trains, which were the main people movers in the United States a century ago, now move less than 1 percent of travelers.
In 1998, a major investment study was done of I-70 for the state Transportation Department by the engineering firm CH2M Hill. They explored alternatives, including the use of a high-speed conventional train (a French TGV) that could go 186 mphin places.
Because conventional trains can’t climb steep grades, they estimated that it would need 40 miles of tunnels between Denver and Vail and would cost so much, and would attract so few passengers (who wants a subterranean ride through spectacular mountains?) that it would not be economic to build. The study recommended a not-yet-developed monorail system.
Five years later in 2004, a slow conventional train that could operate at up to 90 mph, but one that could climb steeper grades, albeit slowly, and so would not need so many tunnels, was explored by CDOT.
This was done by consultants J. F. Sato who were doing the environmental impact study. They found that such a conventional train would cost $4.9 billion and would attract few passengers.
They projected annual ticket fares of just $83 million, which is not nearly enough to justify or finance such an expensive system. It would never be built. Needless to say, they did not recommend this solution.
Other conventional trains have been proposed: a cog rail, a FLIRT system (a conventional train similar to the one that was studied in the environmental impact study), but none of these would be close to being economic.
There has never been a study that demonstrated that a conventional train would be economically viable along I-70 and, I can confidently predict, there never will be. The physical and ridership realities do not permit it.
Next we’ll finish with Part II of this article when I will discuss maglev, a transit solution that would work, the grand compromise, and Ali Hasan’s proposal.