Thursday, 21 Oct 2021

Front Range rail: Northwest route through Boulder emerges as favorite for line that could share track with RTD

The state commission working on a Front Range passenger railway smoothed the way Friday for close coordination on a potential shared rail corridor that could also boost RTD’s long-delayed train to Boulder.

The Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission voted to give its recommendation to a route that includes that shared corridor northwest from Denver over two other potential routes through the metro area. It also signed off on a proposed coordination agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, with the Regional Transportation District and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

RTD’s elected board is expected to vote on the agreement in June, making it official.

Both the larger Front Range regional rail plan and RTD’s long-delayed — and severely underfunded — $1.5 billion extension of its B-Line commuter rail to Boulder County are years from happening. But both the commission and RTD see promise in making use of an existing BNSF Railway freight rail corridor, whether they build new tracks or negotiate use of existing ones.

“The theory here is that Front Range rail and RTD, potentially, could be sharing trackage from Denver to Boulder,” said Sal Pace, the commission’s vice chair and a former lawmaker from Pueblo. “Front Range (rail) would be doing essentially the express route, from Denver to Boulder and Boulder to Denver. RTD would do the service that they promised to their constituents, with frequent and multiple stops between Denver and Boulder.”

RTD’s board this month signaled its support for restarting planning work for the B-Line extension from its current terminus in Westminster up to Boulder and Longmont. The move came in response to pressure from Gov. Jared Polis and other northwest metro elected officials to finish the line, as promised in the 2004 voter-approved FasTracks plan.

The Front Range railway plan is in flux but calls for passenger service that potentially would start as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, and go as far south as Pueblo or Trinidad, eventually linking with Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Last week, Amtrak officials expressed strong support for the regional line and said they would work to help pay for it. Costs for an initial route have been estimated at $2 billion or more, making use of existing freight rail corridors, with a full buildout costing as much as $14 billion. State legislators are considering a bill that would create a Front Range Passenger Rail District in all or parts of 13 counties to oversee the effort.

For now, the commission’s recommendation elevates the Boulder route above two others. Another would take a more direct route north from Denver’s Union Station, while the third would loop eastward to provide a Denver airport connection.

Those alternatives will continue to be studied, commission members said. Early analysis projected the northwest route through Boulder would attract the most riders, about 6,900 on weekdays, while providing comparable travel times to the north route. The airport route would be faster by about 20 minutes but wouldn’t connect to downtown Denver.

Friday’s votes included no dissenters, but several members abstained from one or both because they represent boards or entities that haven’t endorsed a particular route yet.

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