Feds accept Colorado’s Front Range rail project into key grant program

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
A train car manufactured by Stadler Rail and powered by both hydrogen and batteries at the federal Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo County, Colorado on Sept. 19, 2023.

The Federal Railroad Administration has accepted Colorado’s fledgling Front Range passenger rail project into a crucial grant program that could eventually lead to big federal dollars and clear a path for construction of the planned line.

In the meantime, the rail office within the U.S. Department of Transportation will give the Front Range Passenger Rail District $500,000 for planning studies. That district is planning a passenger rail line that would link Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and points in between.

"Front Range Passenger Rail will modernize our transit system, save people money, and support jobs and housing across our state,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. “I applaud the Department of Transportation and the Biden administration for securing and providing this funding, and for recognizing the need for this service and the promise to get it done soon.”

The grant program is part of the massive 2021 federal infrastructure law that is pumping billions of dollars into the nation’s long-neglected passenger rail network. 

“This is yet another example of the ways in which the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is delivering for the people of Colorado,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who has championed the Front Range project. “... I am excited to see this project become a reality for our growing communities.” 

More than 90 applicants from around the country applied for the highly competitive federal Corridor ID program, John Putnam, a former lawyer for the U.S. Department of Transportation and current senior advisor at the Colorado Department of Transportation, said earlier this year. 

The program amounts to the federal rail agency’s “pipeline of projects,” Putnam said. Inclusion is “incredibly important” for hopeful local rail planners, he added.

“Even within the folks who do make the cut, that's not a guarantee that you'll actually get to the actual construction funding,” he said. “But it's a critical opportunity … if you are selected to be part of the Corridor ID program, that is a plus factor, a preference factor in the award of those grants.”

Even with a greater potential for federal dollars, the project would likely need a local revenue stream too. Polis is pushing for a 2024 sales tax funding measure for voters along the Interstate 25 corridor and is building support among local leaders up and down the Front Range. 

Front Range rail officials have said they are aiming to build a relatively low-cost $2 billion “starter service” that would operate on existing freight rail tracks. They hope trains will roll within 10 to 13 years.

“The secret is out that Colorado is an incredible place to live, work, and play, and now is a critical moment for us to address the mobility challenges and opportunities that come from a growing population,” said Andy Karsian, general manager of the Front Range Passenger Rail District.