The Short-term False Promise of Commuter Rail

Jul 1, 2015 | Uncategorized

The Colorado Department of Transportation released a study in May regarding commuter rail from Fort Collins to Denver. You can find information about the study here. It’s called “North I-25 EIS Commuter Rail Update.” EIS stands for ‘environmental impact statement.’ This particular report updates the commuter rail part of the North I-25 EIS that was released in late 2011.

Subsequent to the release of the commuter rail update the Coloradoan did a story about the study and commuter rail in general. While I’m quoted in the story, most of the key points I made to the reporter were omitted so I thought I’d share them with you. The main point I tried to convey is that commuter rail will be necessary in the long run but widening I-25 is the top priority without question.

Minus references to specific pages in the study, here’s what I shared with the reporter regarding the study, I-25 and commuter rail:

  • This is good information and necessary because conditions have changed since the original EIS was completed in 2011.
  • Most of the transportation conversations in Northern Colorado are focused on widening of I-25, and rightfully so. That said, eventually commuter rail will have to be built as the population of Colorado doubles and triples in the decades ahead. Every possible bit of capacity and efficiency in the transportation system will be needed. In that light, it is prudent for CDOT to periodically update the rail plan in anticipation of that eventuality.
  • In the shorter term, the interstate between Fort Collins and Longmont needs to be widened to 3 lanes each way by 2025, 4 lanes would be better and are actually called for in the original EIS. I was in a conversation with some area business leaders recently regarding the vision for I-25. The larger vision should be of the I-25 corridor as a well-functioning multi-modal system that eventually includes 4 lanes of interstate each way between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs with one or two of those lanes being managed lanes and commuter rail as part of the longer vision.
  • Right now I-25 north of Denver operates at Level of Service D. By 2030 or so that will be LOS F, meaning that it will routinely take 3 hours or so to travel from Fort Collins to Denver and DIA. The question being asked by business leaders is ‘Shouldn’t the vision be to have an interstate that operates at least at Level of Service C between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs?’
  • Keep in mind that North I-25 is a nationally designated freight corridor. It is the connection between two major national east-west interstates – I-80 and I-70. Commuter rail won’t help move raw materials and finished products. Nor will it provide enough congestion relief to make a difference. The point here is that a properly functioning I-25 is critical to the economic well-being of our area and the entire state.
  • There’s a romantic appeal to rail that tends to over-shadow the fact that it is a low-capacity, high-cost transportation option. According to transportation experts, there are about 2000 vehicles per lane mile on the interstate. That means you can move a lot more people by car than by train. Then factor in the costs: to build a mile of commuter rail costs $7 million to $26 million. In contrast, it costs around $2 million to build a lane mile of interstate (per the website of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association).
  • Protect the right-of-way for rail, periodically update the rail plan, but widen the interstate in the near future from 4 lanes to 6.

In summary: long-term look at commuter rail, short-term widen the interstate.