A Vote On Front Range Rail Could Come In 2020

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Amtrak’s California Zephyr at Denver’s Union Station. A proposed passenger train from Pueblo to Fort Collins could be operated by Amtrak, and could also stop at Union Station.

At least a handful of members of the 11-member Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission say they’d like to get a funding measure on the 2020 ballot.

That would be a quick turnaround, especially considering the commission just hired a consultant team to create a service development plan to answer key questions on routing, governance and cost. It’s expected to take about 18 months to complete and will build off previous studies.

But at the commission’s meeting last week, member Sal Pace said he expects voters in 2020 — a presidential year — will be younger and more likely to pass a funding measure.

“2020 is going to be absolutely the best year to be on the ballot,” said the former Pueblo County commissioner and state legislator. “So that raises a question: What is most important? Having the most refined plan, or having the best electorate?” 

Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart agreed with Pace.

“2020 makes the most sense,” he said. 

A new funding source would likely be essential to making the rail proposal a reality, even if the state secured federal grants. A 2014 study considered a number of route options and technologies, all of which cost more than $11 billion.

The train commission’s project director, Randy Grauberger, said after the meeting that the commission would need to come to an agreement before moving forward. 

“In regard to the 2020 ballot, there is no such plan yet at this point. There's just way too many variables at the early stages of the project,” Grauberger said.

The commission still hasn’t decided what type of tax it will propose — both a sales and property tax were suggested at last week’s meeting. It also must consider what type of authority a new governing entity will need, like the ability to condemn property via eminent domain or issue bonds, for example. 

The legislature will need to be involved as well. Pace proposed that lawmakers create a special taxing district that covers only the Front Range and then get a taxing measure on that district’s ballot in 2020. 

Legislators’ willingness to support such a plan is, so far, unclear. The rail commission presented to the state Transportation Legislation Review Committee on Monday morning, but funding measure strategies did not come up. 

But at least one member of the committee said after the meeting that he’d support a 2020 ask, with contingencies. 

“If they have a good plan, and it’s well thought out, and it’s easy for the voters to understand, I wouldn’t see why they wouldn’t want to have that conversation, dialogue, with the voters,” said Sen. Kevin Priola, a Republican from Brighton. 

Priola said he’s supportive of a new passenger rail system. The longer the state waits, he said, the more it’s going to cost to build. He said that Denver International Airport, built in the early 1990s, has paid off in spades for the state only because leaders in the 1980s had the foresight to invest in it.

“So too, I think we need to look at [moving] forward on our rail transportation,” Priola said.

It’s also not clear whether a 2020 ballot measure would have the support of Gov. Jared Polis. 

“We can’t comment on a bill or ballot language we have not seen,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor.

But Polis remains supportive of the project overall, he said. 

“Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail could support the state’s future growth and economy and benefit all Coloradans with sustainable, reliable travel choices,” Cahill said.