State of the state: Transportation

Denver’s stately Union Station lost its crucial relevance in Colorado decades ago. The coal and other freight trains kept rolling by, at least 18 to 24 a day, and Amtrak slid in and out, morning and night. But the union was a misnomer, the grand station mostly historical relic.

Now the station is becoming a union once again. Light-rail trains from the south metropolitan converge, to be joined in 2016 by commuter trains from Denver International Airport, the Gold line to Arvada and Wheat Ridge, and the hub of an eventual rail line to Boulder and Longmont. They will be joined by buses. Will Union Station someday also connect high-speed trains along the Colorado’s I-25 and I-70 corridors?

“I really don’t know,” says Mark Imhoff, director of the Division of Transit and Rail, a new agency within the Colorado Department of Transportation. Imhoff does hope that several studies being launched by his division will deliver answers to that and other questions.

C-DOT has spent tens of millions of dollars during the last decade studying I-70 west from Denver to the Eagle Valley. Under the auspices of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, it also has studied potential for high-speed rail along both the I-70 and I-25 corridors. Where these studies left dangling questions is where the new studies will start.

The I-70 study, for example, specified improvements to increase capacity of the existing highway, with an estimated cost of $8 billion. It also articulated a 50-year vision of what it generically called an automated guideway system, or AGS. The document favored no particular technology, but said that whatever the technology, it must move people more rapidly than cars. One common threshold in defining high-speed rail is 120 mph.
How real is any of this? Former Gov. Bill Owens in 2001 dismissed the vision of a I-70 monorail as a “Disneyland ride.” With its upcoming $2 million study of technology for high-speed rail along I-25 and I-70 corridors, C-DOT dismisses very little.

Still, much remains to be proven. For example, one type of technology identified in the I-70 study, magnetic levitation, works wonderfully on test tracks that are flat and straight. Two commercial applications of the technology exist, one being in Shanghai, where a mag-lev train rockets 19 miles at maximum speeds of 268 mph.

But will mag-lev – or other types of high-speed technology – work on the grades from Georgetown to the Continental Divide or, for that matter, across the Palmer Divide?

“We don’t know,” Imhoff says. “There aren’t any systems in the world that operate under those conditions.” The one possible exception is the Chinese high-speed rail – not powered by mag-lev – to Lhasa, Tibet. It is reported to be operating well.

Imhoff expects more than one technology to emerge. A technology needed for I-70 west from Denver into the mountains could be overkill for what’s needed to move people at high speeds in flattish, straight routes to Kansas City. He does believe that rising energy prices, increasing congestion, and still marginal air quality all provide compelling reasons to seek alternatives to cars and highways.

C-DOT will invite transportation companies like Bombardier and Parsons for a broad review, then ask for specific proposals. Among other questions C-DOT will ask: How do you propose to prove that your technology will work in our situation?

Imhoff’s group will also be revisiting projected ridership. Using proprietary methodology, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority found high and synergistic ridership for high-speed rail in the two interstate corridors. To be credible, the new study must be transparent.

Also unknown is how the high-speed lines would be integrated into the metropolitan area. “It’s a pretty big deal, because RTD is investing a few billion dollars in the light-rail system. What they don’t need, and what we don’t need, is to be putting in a competing infrastructure,” Imhoff says. “How we do that, we don’t really know.”

State officials are also rethinking financing. The federal government picked up 90 percent of interstate construction costs. In the future, they may get 20 percent federal help on highway projects.

Other revenue sources will be necessary: from freight; income from development around stations; licensing of new technology developed for Colorado for application elsewhere in the world; and private financing, using the model established by RTD for the new commuter lines to Arvada and DIA.

Imhoff says he doubts anything concrete – literally – will come of these studies for at least 10 to 15 years, probably much longer. Looking backward, however, he sees parallels to the planning for DIA. DIA was called Dumbbell International Airport by critics, but it has become the nation’s fifth busiest airport, growing even during the economic downturn.
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