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 September 1, 1999

Steep climb ahead for rail advocates

Proponents talk about the existing track that runs along U.S. 36 as if it were their baby — calling it the finest in the state. Seamless.

They talk about commuter rail as if it were a progressive, energy-efficient super hero undaunted by weather, tireless and so comfortable, riders would be reading newspapers, writing novels and eating fat-free yogurt.

They all have their reasons: Veteran RTD bus driver Bob Brewster has been a rail enthusiast since he was a child growing up in Philadelphia. “No one ever thought about driving into the city in those days,” he says.

He and a growing number of others see an opportunity for RTD to lease equipment and the right to use existing Burlington Northern tracks that run along the U.S. 36 Corridor to help alleviate the congestion that’s expected to worsen as population, retail development and employment centers add more and more automobiles to the highway linking Boulder County to the Denver metropolitan area.

“What worries me most about it is I think everybody — or almost everybody — is underestimating the speed with which problems will occur on U.S. 36.” Says Dick McLean, a member of the RTD board of directors.

“They will occur sooner — much sooner — than anybody realizes. I think the highway will be a mess in three or four years, and people will be demanding some type of solution. I don’t think most people in town have the faintest idea of how large Interlocken is going to be. It is going to be a major employment center and is going to impact U.S. 36 in a very major way — that and other developments in Broomfield such as FlatIron Crossing. When projects planned or approved in Broomfield and Westminster are completed, there’s going to be a very dramatic effect on U.S. 36.”

Says Sue Anderson, transportation chairwoman for the League of Woman Voters: “Basically U.S. 36 is going to be gridlocked in five to six years. We need rail.”

A member of a technical committee helping advise a major study of alternatives for the highway, Anderson says the best solution for U.S. 36 is commuter rail complemented by enhanced bus service, which already is known for a high number of riders in the corridor compared to elsewhere in the metro area. “The combination is wonderful,” Anderson says.

Proponents of commuter rail also say compared to expanding the highway, using existing rail would be easier and cheaper. Regional rail could run from $180 million to $471.1 million — less $66 million to $90 million that could come from the U.S. 36 decision-makers’ cooperation with the goals of the North Front Range Transportation Alternatives Feasibility Study that may also recommend introducing commuter rail.

A joint effort would result in commuter rail originating at Denver’s Union Station, traveling to Westminster and Broomfield and weaving through Louisville and Lafayette directly westbound into Boulder before making an arch and heading north through Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins on its way to Wyoming. (Travel time from Boulder to Denver is estimated at 41 to 45 minutes.)

Some proponents say RTD could start with a demonstration project that could grow in increments. “Agreements and regulations aside, you could pretty much get a passenger train running tomorrow,” Brewster says.

It has not been seen as a setback that the RTD board voted Aug. 17 to delay four transportation studies — including the U.S. 36 Major Investment Study (MIS) — required to obtain federal funding for improvements such as rail.

The delay will allow the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) to update its population and employment forecast for 2020 that’s used in models to estimate potential ridership for the alternatives presented by the studies. And, before the delay, alternatives for U.S. 36 had been narrowed to four, three of which included commuter rail; RTD was expected to adopt the locally preferred alternative in October. Consultants are expected to take the process up again in January and present recommendations to the RTD board in July 2000.

In addition, Debra Baskett, director of the U.S. 36 Transportation Management Organization, says one of the three other studies to be delayed, the North Front Range study, gave as its preliminary recommendation alternatives focusing on northbound I-25 and did not include a shared commuter rail plan with neighboring U.S. 36.

Rail would be much more feasible financially if the cost were shared — otherwise the burden of financing rail from Denver to Boulder would rest solely on U.S. 36 funding. So a delay is perhaps the best development that could happen at this point because it may end with more support for rail.

“Really the point is that we haven’t been able to integrate what the various MISs have been concluding,” Baskett says, “and (the delay) may change some of the preliminary recommendations.”

But either way, rail never would be embraced by everybody, McLean says. “A unanimous decision is not realistic, I’m afraid,” he says.

And, indeed, the consultants determining the best alternative for the board to consider must determine the political viability of what they propose in addition to everything else.

“I think they need to hear from elected officials such as mayors and council members,” McLean says.

Boulder City Council member Spense Havlick, who also sits on the policy advisory committee for the U.S. 36 MIS, says the rail alternative ranked the highest in terms of preference in the meetings he attended. He says he was surprised that the preliminary alternative Carter-Burgess, the consulting firm responsible for the U.S. 36 MIS, had suggested before the announced delay, was the addition of a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane for buses coupled with minor roadway improvements.

“There was some erosion on the part of the consulting firm on the importance of rail, which really surprised us because it had ranked so high,” says Havlick, who has studied rail nationwide and worldwide. “I think that subverted the will that had been expressed by the general public and many, many committee members. Some of us are of the opinion that HOV and expanded lanes with all of the development are going to be choked in three or four years.”

Havlick says among the advantages of rail are that it creates transit-oriented development around the train stations.

“It prevents sprawl between the stations, whereas a highway development promotes sprawl — the big box retailers, hotels, shopping centers all know that they can lure (the) automobile-dependent. … That’s why I remain hopeful that over the long haul rail will be seen as the more promising mode of mobility.”

Proponents talk about the existing track that runs along U.S. 36 as if it were their baby — calling it the finest in the state. Seamless.

They talk about commuter rail as if it were a progressive, energy-efficient super hero undaunted by weather, tireless and so comfortable, riders would be reading newspapers, writing novels and eating fat-free yogurt.

They all have their reasons: Veteran RTD bus driver Bob Brewster has been a rail enthusiast since he was a child growing up in Philadelphia. “No one ever thought about driving into the city…

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