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Eagle County’s transportation future is now

Nick Fickling
Nick Fickling
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Two years ago in Beijing, I noticed a massive building project across the airport. It was the Norman Foster designed terminal for the 2008 Olympics that recently opened with a feature most U.S. airports lack ” a modern, high-speed rail link to the city.

Washington Dulles is as disconnected from the nation’s capitol and its metro system as it was in 1962. The 46-year wait has added upward of $5.1 billion to the cost, and the political infighting over route and budget seems never ending. Imagine the savings, had a 26-mile rail link been built in 1962; savings in gas, traffic congestion, pollution, health and road repairs.

In Phoenix, a brand-new rental car terminal was built miles from the main airport with no rail link between them, or to the city center. At most U.S. airports the internal combustion engine reigns supreme and long-term planning is heavily influenced by special interests. Between 1960 and 2004, only 15 U.S. airports developed a rail link. In nearly every case they were adding to an existing situation ” playing catch-up.

Three-dollar gas is a thing of the past and with our dependence on imported oil, the cost of moving people and freight is beginning to bite. Warnings were there years ago, but we were blinded by a belief that airplane and automobile travel are a right. We ignored the warnings that came with 1970s fuel shortages. While the rest of the world invested in viable alternatives to the automobile and airplane, Democratic and Republican administrations alike avoided the tough choices, allowing corporate interests and vote-pandering politics to dictate policy. Instead of leading us to lower dependence on oil, through necessary but painful policy shifts over time, they put off the day of reckoning. Even when Sept. 11 starkly pointed out our energy vulnerability, our government chose massive subsidies for airlines and road transport over rail development and alternative sources of energy.

With gas prices rising and oil supplies threatened, the lack of U.S. investment in transport systems that do not rely directly on oil is concerning. The difference between the 1970s and now is that now India, China and others, are thirsty for our oil. We are competing for a scarce resource and so, inevitably, prices are set to rise and rise. Prepare yourselves for over $5-per-gallon gas in the not too distant future.

We should have already invested in convenient high-speed inter-city rail links, with airports connected, as part of a comprehensive transport system; instead we are reacting to circumstance and only just beginning to act. The U.S. ability to compete globally down the road might sink or swim on the sophistication of our internal transport links. Our competitors in China, India and Europe all have rail links that are receiving massive investment. Here we tear ours up to make bike paths or build houses.

There has been talk of a rail link to Denver for many years. When flights get expensive, and gas is $5 a gallon or more, it is luxuries that are skipped, like a trip to the mountains. A Western Slope recession is distinctly possible. We cannot wait for Denver and the promised rail link; that will take too long. Eagle County could, however, further improve its airport, try to re-open the railway from Glenwood to Leadville for light-rail passenger service and connect the Eagle County Regional Airport to the Western Slope ski resorts by such a system. There would be added benefits such as less mountain traffic, and fewer affordable housing issues as people could commute to work by rail from areas where housing is more reasonably priced.

Eagle County should host the first part of the Denver-to-Eagle rail link, not the last. Developing the western end of such a system, based on the Eagle airport, is the right way to get a comprehensive transport system for the Western Slope moving forward. Think globally and act locally.

Nick Fickling is retired from the British military and lives in the Vail Valley. E-mail him at fickling@vail.net or editor@vailtrail.com.


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