Southwest Chief Commission Sets Sights on Front Range Rail

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This post has been updated, first on Sat 1/28/17 to expand the story.  Last updated Thursday 2/2/17 to reflect that the bill has been introduced at the statehouse. 

The state's Southwest Chief Commission, which has been working since 2014 to find ways to preserve and expand a long-distance Amtrak route that runs through southern Colorado, is setting its sights on passenger rail along the Interstate 25 corridor and Colorado's Front Range. 

The commission is scheduled to sunset this summer.  A new bill looks to continue and expand the group's mission and scope. 

Sal Pace, Pueblo County Commissioner and Chair of the Southwest Chief Commission, says the bill aims to do several things:  continue the Southwest Chief Commission, renaming it the Southwest Chief and Front Range Rail Passenger Commission;  add membership from the Front Range, from Fort Collins through Trinidad, tasked with exploring Front Range passenger rail; and make a recommendation to the state's General Assembly by the first of December 2017 for establishing a Front Range Rail Authority.

The Southwest Chief

The Southwest Chief is a long-distance passenger rail line connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, traveling through the southern Colorado communities of Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad.  It's run by Amtrak, and in 2014, the line faced the possibility of being rerouted out of Colorado, as well as portions of Kansas and New Mexico, due to mounting repair and maintenance costs.

That year, lawmakers at the statehouse created the Southwest Chief Commission, tasked with finding ways to finance the repairs and maintenance and save the rail line.  Since then, through partnerships with local governments, affected states, and other entities such as Amtrak and the Colorado Rail Passenger Association (ColoRail), a passenger rail advocacy group, the commission has been able to secure enough funding to ensure the line stays put.

"The train has been stabilized on its route through Colorado," says Jim Souby, president of ColoRail and member of the Southwest Chief Commission.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief pulls into the Lamar station, spring 2014.
Credit Maggie Spencer / KRCC
Amtrak's Southwest Chief pulls into the Lamar station, spring 2014.

"Most of the rail that needed to be replaced on the La Junta sub—which is La Junta to Newton, Kansas—has been completed," says Pace.  "Most of the work that needs to happen still is southern, from Trinidad to Santa Fe.  A lot of that track is owned by the state of New Mexico." 

That's different than other sections, which is largely owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), which has committed to maintaining the route. 

"The majority of the money has been raised," says Pace.  "But we need a little more than $40 million more that needs to be raised for those repairs."

The commission has also been tasked with adding a stop in Pueblo and possibly Walsenburg.  Souby says they're waiting on information from BNSF related to requirements so they can start developing through-rail service to Pueblo, which would connect La Junta to Pueblo, through to Trinidad, on the Southwest Chief line.  Pace says that funding is lined up.  It's unclear as to progress on a possible stop in Walsenburg.

Interstate 25

The news of the pending bill comes as the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) works to fast-track lane expansion on I-25, specifically in what's known as "the gap" section, where the expressway narrows to four lanes total between Castle Rock and Monument.

It's been a topic of local leadership, showing up in Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers' State of the City speech in September, as well as former El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark's State of the Region speech in December

Earlier this month, CDOT announced they're committed to starting construction in 2019 pending funding, and is expediting the environmental and planning process.  "As congestion continues to build along I-25, CDOT has decided that this project can't wait," Shailen Bhatt, CDOT's Executive Director, said in a press release.

"You need two things to widen highways," Bhatt said at a press conference, as reported by the Colorado Springs Business Journal.  "You need money… and you need [a National Environmental Policy Act] decision."

"I don't think the environmental study will be a huge obstacle," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told the paper.  "But there was a lot of money spent to engineer around the [Preble's Meadow mouse] in Monument, so you never can tell, but I think the legislative funding is the big obstacle."

"The cost of construction to bring I-25 into the modern world is still over $2 billion," Gov. Hickenlooper, State of the State, 2017

It's also a hot issue at the statehouse.

Transportation was a main topic of Governor John Hickenlooper's State of the State Address.  As to I-25 specifically, the governor said, "The cost of construction to bring I-25 into the modern world is still over $2 billion.  That's more than CDOT's total annual budget, which is almost entirely dedicated to maintenance.  We're already squeezing every penny out of our transportation revenue, but efficiencies can only get us so far… We've had this debate for too long."  Hickenlooper said he would like to put the question of transportation funding before voters.

State Representative Terri Carver (R-Colorado Springs), along with five other representatives, issued a letter to Governor Hickenlooper to deem the I-25 project as "high priority," in relation to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump that seeks to speed up environmental reviews for "high priority" infrastructure projects.

Front Range Passenger Rail

The plan for this new commission, should the bill pass, is to expand the scope of the Southwest Chief Commission to include exploring the notion of passenger rail along the I-25 corridor.

The goal is not to compete with efforts to widen the interstate, Pace says, but rather to work in tandem.  "We absolutely support three-laning I-25 from Colorado Springs to Denver," says Pace.  "However, the numbers show that won't be enough."

"Expanding I-25 alone won't solve the problem." - Sal Pace, Chair, Southwest Chief Commission

Population estimates from the state demography office show continued growth in Colorado, with a projected population in 2020 of 5.9 million people.  In 2035, that number grows to 7.3 million, and in 2050, the projection for Colorado's population reaches 8.5 million people. 

As of 2015, the office estimated Colorado's population at 5.4 million people.  Most of those people live and will live along Colorado's Front Range, with a projected Front Range population of 7.1 million in 2050.

"It has to be an all-hands-on-deck approach, and that means passenger rail works hand-in-glove with expanding I-25.  It's a multi-modal approach," says Pace.  "Passenger rail on the Front Range compliments everything that's happening with I-25, but expanding I-25 alone won't solve the problem."

Both Pace and ColoRail's Jim Souby see Front Range rail as an inevitability, but Souby says it's not something that will happen quickly.

"Developing a Front Range system would require years of planning, between five and ten years, before environmental planning, permits, federal approval and funds, state funds and other financing could be obtained," he says.  "Construction would best be done one step at a time, starting out with service at peak traffic times and growing it in tune with demand and ridership." 

But, he adds, "Given the length of time to plan and develop a rail system, the time is now." 

Pace says the bill, with state Senators Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) and Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) and Representative Daneya Esgar (D-Pueblo) attached, should be introduced in the coming days. It was introduced on 1/31/17.


Original post--Thurs. Jan 26, 2017:

A  new bill being prepared for this year's legislative session targets passenger rail along Colorado's Front Range and the Interstate 25 corridor.

The state's Southwest Chief Commission that's been working on preserving and expanding a long-distance Amtrak line in southern Colorado sunsets this summer, and the bill looks to continue and expand the group's mission and scope.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace has served on the commission since it began in 2014, and says Colorado's population growth means there has to be a multi-modal approach to transportation.

"Passenger rail on the Front Range compliments everything that's happening with I-25," he says.  "But expanding I-25 alone won't solve the problem."

The bill is still in its draft form and Pace says it should be introduced soon.  He says any remaining funds from the current commission would rollover into the new group. 

Pace says the new commission would look to present recommendations by December for establishing a Front Range Rail Authority.