Hickenlooper has signed bill to explore Front Range passenger train service. What now?

Gov. John Hickenlooper this week signed into law a bill to explore building passenger rail service along the Front Range and the expansion of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route through the state’s southeastern corner.

Monday’s signing sets into motion a set of 11 stakeholders to be appointed to a voting group on the newly created Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. It’s charged with presenting the state legislature with a plan and a draft bill for New Mexico-to-Wyoming service before the end of 2017.

Five metropolitan planning organizations and the Regional Transportation District will each appoint a member, and Hickenlooper will appoint five members to the commission. The governor’s appointees are slated to include representatives from freight carriers Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific, as well as public rail advocates.

“It will be a busy summer and fall of meetings,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who helped lead the push for the new commission and has been a vocal advocate for passenger rail in Colorado. He hopes to be appointed or will apply to be one of the voting members.

Pace said the commission has a deadline of Dec. 1, 2017, to present draft legislation to lawmakers. Amtrak and the Colorado Department of Transportation are also expected to be part of the bill-drafting process.

Hyoung Chang, Denver Post fileAmtrak’s California Zephyr train stops at Denver’s Union Station on Feb. 28, 2014.

While passenger rail supporters say the creation of infrastructure for such a large project is possible, the question remains cost. Front Range train service won’t come without a hefty price tag, and the state legislature this past session couldn’t even come to an agreement on how to the fund Colorado’s crisis-level roads situation.

Pace said the commission will explore ways to fund the creation of passenger rail both through and without the help of the Colorado General Assembly.

The new rail commission stems from the Southwest Chief Commission, which was created several years ago at the height of worries that millions of dollars in critical track repairs would shut down the historic Amtrak route. The law will also extend the Southwest Chief Commission’s authority beyond its July 1 expiration date, even though funds have been shored up for the line.

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But even after Hickenlooper’s bill-signing Monday in Pueblo, the Southwest Chief line and the state’s other cross-country Amtrak route — the Chicago-to-San Francisco California Zephyr — remain in the cross hairs of President Donald Trump’s budget-cut ideas. That, along with funding on the state level, could be problematic for the expansion of passenger rail service in Colorado.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that Amtrak’s going to be OK,” Jim Souby, president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association, said earlier this year. “Nobody knows quite how Congress is going to handle the budget this year. But I think it’s a big policy declaration by the state that we need to take passenger rail seriously. It passed the (Colorado legislature) with bipartisan support.”

Supporters say Front Range rail service would help reduce highway congestion and also spur economic development, especially in southern Colorado, where the Great Recession recovery has been less robust. Pace and others also hope to connect Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Pueblo, with a new stop that the federal rail carrier has shown interest in.

The new rail commission also comes on the heels of the highly successful reincarnation of the Winter Park Express ski train.


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