Nearly 19 years ago, Boulder resident Gary Sprung voted to increase his taxes to bring passenger rail service to his city by 2014.
That still hasn’t happened, as many area residents are keenly aware.
But Sprung was in fine spirits Tuesday evening as he perused info boards and milled about during a public meeting on the long-awaited Northwest Rail line hosted by the Regional Transportation District. It was the first such meeting in the region since 2014, RTD officials said.
“It’s good to see RTD making progress,” Sprung said at the meeting, held just a few minutes' walk from the line’s track on the city’s northeastern fringe. “Ten years ago I was really worried that RTD was doing nothing. Now, they’re doing something.”
That something is an ongoing agency study into installing a bare-bones version of the line RTD successfully sold to voters in 2004 as part of the larger FasTracks initiative. The original pitch envisioned train service between Longmont and Denver every 15 minutes during peak times.
Incorrect cost estimates and the Great Recession torpedoed RTD’s rail plans, tripling the line’s cost to $1.5 billion and delaying the estimated completion date out to 2050. Only a six-mile stub to Westminster exists so far, much to the frustration of local residents including Gov. Jared Polis.
But for the last year, RTD has been studying the feasibility of rush hour-only service: three Longmont-to-Denver trains in the morning and three Denver-to-Longmont trains in the evening.
“What this study is about is trying to identify the facts,” said Patrick Stanley, who’s managing the study for RTD. “How much it costs to operate, what infrastructure we need to put in place, how much it's going to cost to run on the BNSF right-of-way.”
That last fact is an important one. RTD owns the land and tracks on which the rest of its sprawling rail network operates. But the Northwest Rail line is different. RTD plans to lease track time from its owner, BNSF Railway, rather than buying it outright.
BNSF’s usage costs — $535 million — sank RTD’s plans more than a decade ago. But RTD officials now hope much more limited service will mean much lower rent from the freight giant. The idea has been championed for years by elected officials in the northwest metro.
“This event means that RTD finally is taking it seriously,” said Longmont Mayor Joan Peck.
Some transit advocates have argued RTD should let go of its rail dreams and focus on increasing bus service instead. One meeting attendee repeated that on Tuesday, lamenting pandemic-era cuts to buses in Boulder.
“I appreciate that voters asked for this in 2004,” said Boulder resident Audrey Wheeler. “But it seems so unlikely that this train’s going to happen. Maybe it would be a better use of funding and time to just make a better bus system.”
But RTD and other supporters are pinning their Northwest Rail hopes on another big project.
The Front Range Passenger Rail project envisions new passenger rail service from Fort Collins to Pueblo — potentially on the same tracks RTD wishes to use between Longmont and Denver. Amtrak has publicly committed to the Front Range project, which could mean federal dollars helping both Front Range rail and RTD.
“The only reason I'm hopeful is because of Amtrak and Front Range Passenger Rail,” said Peck, who sits on the board of the Front Range Passenger Rail District.
In turn, RTD’s current study will feed into one the Front Range rail team is working on now.
“The timelines are coming together” between the two projects, said Front Range Passenger Rail District General Manager Andy Karsian.
“Honestly, it’s really exciting,” he said.
In a perfect world, Karsian and RTD want to see fast and frequent service along the Northwest Rail corridor — something far beyond the very modest plan RTD presented Tuesday.
That’s appealing to Ken Davis, a Longmont resident who voted for the train in 2004 and has been frustrated ever since.
“They got to start someplace,” Davis said of RTD’s bare-bones plan. “But they got to go further than that once they get this pushed through.”
IF YOU GO
RTD is hosting another public meeting on the Northwest Rail Line on Thursday, Feb. 2, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Westminster City Park Rec Center.
There’s a virtual public open house available as well.
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