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Does High Country have enough traffic for a monorail?

Alex Miller
Vail, CO Colorado
Mark Fox/Summit DailyTraffic jams caused by accidents " such as this one in Summit County " and busy ski weekends may not be enough to win significant federal funding for a High Country monorail or similar mass-transit system.
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COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colorado ” Some kind of high-speed rail system running from Denver International Airport to Glenwood Springs and beyond could be a mountain traveler’s dream ” or a minefield full of unintended consequences.

That was the gist of the conversation that took place Thursday at Copper Mountain at a meeting involving the I-70 Coalition and representatives from the mountain counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation and various consultants brought into the process.

Last month, members of the Coalition agreed on several fixes to I-70 through the mountains ” including widening the highway from Floyd Hill to the twin tunnels just east of Idaho Springs; improvements to the interchange at U.S. 40; and auxiliary lanes on the east- and westbound approaches to the Eisenhower Tunnel.

The Coalition also agreed to study the feasibility of mass-transit into the mountains, and Thursday’s meeting was focused on how communities can become “transit friendly.”

Eagle County was well represented at the meeting, with County Commissioner Peter Runyon and Vail Mayor Dick Cleveland among those in attendance. After hearing consultants from the transit “project team” discuss a number of transit examples from urban areas, Runyon asked whether there was anything that would suit mountain communities that don’t have the high density most mass transit systems need to be feasible.

“It’s a different kind of model,” said John Durham, a transit expert with Norris Design in Denver. “It’s not like the Eastern cities, where the population justified the (transit) demand. The demand proven here is the number of cars on the highway.”

Durham said the team could find no real valid comparison anywhere in the world to the kind of mass-transit system that would be required here.

Thursday session set forth a host of questions about mass transit that will need to be addressed by the many communities, jurisdictions and business interests along the interstate. Since the I-70 Coalition has agreed transit should be studied, the concerns brought up were from people generally warm to the idea. But digging deeper into what a high-speed rail might do to mountain communities revealed plenty to ponder.

“What’s the reality of actually having mass transit?” asked Michael Penny, Frisco’s town manager and chair of the I-70 Coalition. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

In a small-group session focused on Eagle County, Runyon picked up on the observation that urban precedents for transit may mean little for a plan in the mountains.

“We may come up with a new definition of transit, but are we grabbing a tiger by the tail and getting unintended consequences?” Runyon said.

In different conversations, other potential consequences brought up included:

– Gentrification of towns where mass transit allows workers more easily to commute into a town like Vail while housing prices expand even further;

– Reverse commuting, where people take higher-paying jobs in Denver yet live in the mountains;

– Adding to the number of people at the already-busy ski areas on the weekends;

– Towns and counties being less inclined to build or encourage affordable housing.

Eagle County planner Cliff Simonton summed up the sentiments of many when he talked about rail possibly having a homogenizing effect on mountain towns.

“We could lose our identity if people feel they can be anywhere, so anywhere looks like anyplace,” he said. “There’s a difficulty to living in a place like Eagle County that creates a shared experience among those who live here. If a highly efficient rail system is in place, it could dilute the mountain identity.”

Mass transit also would have its benefits, according to Allan Zreet, a transit expert with with Jacobs Carter Burgess in Dallas. Those include:

– Tourist and worker mobility;

– Increased revenue;

– Diversified economic base;

– Economic development;

– Reduced congestion.

One concern with transit that surfaced repeatedly was the need for “feeders” to get people from train stations to other destinations. The idea that a Denver family with several kids and a ton of ski gear would get it onto a train, then onto a bus and then from a bus stop to a condo was seen as a deterrent to a feasible rail model.

Landscape architect Jennifer Merer, with Jacobs Carter Burgess in Denver, said stations would need to have strong baggage-handling capabilities, as well as provisions for storing bikes, kayaks, skis and other gear.

“You’ve got to be able to get their baggage all the way to the hotel,” she said.

Another potential sticking point for transit is the current zoning laws towns and counties have in place, Zreet said.

A big part of the success of transit, he said, is having stations that are integrated into the community and that have a fair amount of residential and commercial development within biking or walking distance. That requires additional density that may not be part of current zoning.

Zreet said mountain communities need to start taking that into consideration when they approach zoning decisions in the coming years.

If and when a high-speed rail or “fixed guideway” system is built, Zreet said not to expect them to go 200 mph like ones in Japan and Europe. With the mountains and more frequent stops, it’s more likely they’d not top 100 mph.

In addition to the I-70 Coalition meetings on the community aspect of mass transit, another group ” the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority ” is investigating the logistics of an advanced guideway system, with a report due by the end of 2009.

According to Penny, they are looking at ridership studies and technical issues not just for I-70 but for the I-25 corridor as well.

Penny said the “transit friendly” consultants will continue to meet with local jurisdictions to talk about planning and zoning elements of transit, with a report due in early 2009.

Vail Daily Editor Alex Miller can be reached at 748-2920, or amiller@vaildaily.com.


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