Congressman urges revival of monorail
Though a mountain monorail appears to be a low priority for federal and state transit agencies, Eagle County’s congressman is urging officials to keep the concept on drawing board.
U.S. Rep Mark Udall, D-Boulder, joins several local officials who complained the monorail was absent when federal and state agencies released a preliminary list of projects aimed at easing traffic on the mountain stretch of Interstate 70.
Udall voiced his concern in a letter to Colorado Department of Transportation Director Tom Norton and Federal Highway Administration engineer Larry Smith.
“Clearly, cost is an important factor to consider for any and all options, but summarily dismissing rail transit options at this point in the process is not only short-sighted, it creates the impression that local consensus and local community priorities are not relevant or important in making final policy decision,” Udall wrote.
In the November 2001 elections, Colorado voters shot down a $4 billion funding proposal for a monorail test project. Monorail proponents drummed up only 34 percent of the vote statewide, though the monorail captured more than 61 percent of the vote in the mountain stretch of Clear Creek, Summit and Eagle counties.
Transit officials said in releasing their list of ideas earlier this month that the monorail was too expensive. Udall said he disagreed with that reasoning.
“Moreover, I do not think that your review should eliminate certain options that have been on the table for years based on presumed investments that the federal government, the state and local communities, along with private sector support, may or may not be willing to contribute for work on the corridor in the future,” Udall wrote.
In identifying potential projects for the 144-mile stretch of freeway between the Front Range and Glenwood Springs, the transportation department nailed down nine “preliminary” preferred grouping alternatives, said Bob Wilson, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The “preferred grouping” alternatives include guideway buses, highway-widening projects, and another batch of highway-widening proposals that would preserve segments of the corridor for future transit projects, Wilson said.
However, transportation officials said it will be at least two years before they know exactly what projects will be chosen and eventually constructed.
The decision to drop the monorail – also known as the “advanced guideway system” – bothered local elected officials.
“Overall, my reaction is that CDOT is skewing the preferred action toward more asphalt, more cars and traffic and not giving enough weight to high-speed mass transit,” said Ron Wolfe, Avon town councilman. “High-speed mass transit is an imperative for the future.”
Wolfe said population projections for Summit and Eagle counties for the next two decades are likely too high and therefore, don’t justify widening the interstate.
“I question the reality of build-out number for residences, commerce and jobs. They seem unrealistically high,” Wolfe said. “Overbuilding the highway will be a mistake.”
Fellow Avon Town Councilman Brian Sipes said there are some important ideas the state’s proposals continue to neglect.
“There are significant technical advantages to an elevated fixed guideway that are independent of the monorail proposal,” Sipes said. “An elevated guideway would be physically above any avalanche runout zones that frequently close the highway.-
“An elevated guideway requires little to no additional (widening) because it takes up little ground space,” he added. “I would think this would be critical to places like Georgetown and Silver Plume where there is no space for more lanes.”
Eagle County Commissioner Mike Gallagher said the monorail was the best way to ease traffic jams.
“The Advanced Guideway System is definitely the more expensive choice,” Gallagher said. “But you get what you pay for, and they didn’t select the preferred choice.
“The only alternative that improves congestion is the Advanced Guideway System but CDOT didn’t do that,” he said. “CDOT doesn’t have the money to do any of the project. They don’t have the money to do the existing projects.”
But CDOT Director Norton said the release of the list of priorities was mark of progress in the agency’s efforts to smooth travel on I-70.
“Given the significant transportation needs of this corridor and of the entire state highway system, we must take a realistic approach to future investments on the corridor because, unfortunately, financing is limited and we have to make difficult choices,” Norton said. “This preliminary decision addresses affordable and reasonable alternatives and also tackles the congestion and safety problems.”
Udall, meanwhile, is seeking $2.5 billion for I-70 improvements in the five-year transportation reauthorization bill known as TEA-2. He said the timing of the agencies’ announcement is premature and could jeopardize efforts to get maximum funding for highway improvements.-
“I am particularly disturbed that the announcement comes at a time when the Colorado Congressional delegation is working to secure federal transportation funds for our state,” Udall said. “It was and still is my expectation that these funds could be used for more innovative approaches and transit options.-
“This … pronouncement on rejecting some transit options undercuts this effort,” Udall added. “It would be unfortunate to limit our options now when we do not know what funding may be possible down the road.”
Vail Daily reporter Christine Ina Casillas contributed to this report.