A Vision for Front Range Passenger Rail

In 2017, the Colorado Southwest Chief Commission was legislatively repurposed to become the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. The Commission was tasked with facilitating implementation and operation of future passenger rail along the Front Range and Interstate 25.

In 2018, the Colorado General Assembly made a $2.5 million General Fund transfer to fund the Commission, including the development of a rail passenger service plan for the Front Range corridor. The state will be reviewing several alternatives, at varying price points, for advancing innovative yet practical pathways for planning and coalition building in pursuit of funding.

The Commission and CDOT are ready to work with USDOT to highlight key priorities such as streamlining environmental review and reducing pressure on key freight corridors by moving people off congested highways. Colorado continues to improve and expand its highway system, especially I-25.

However, a passenger service rail linking Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins to Denver—a 173-mile corridor that contains the majority of Colorado's population—will benefit all Coloradans. The project would be the transportation "spine" along the Front Range, with other multimodal systems east and west of the I-25 corridor integrated into Front Range Passenger Rail.

Front Range passenger rail service would meet the following needs:

  • Provide a new travel option
  • Relieve growth and congestion pressures
  • Respond to demographic changes and public interest in passenger rail
  • Reinforce statewide planning and partnerships
  • Support legislative direction

In the next 25 years (by 2045), there will be 7.8 million Coloradans, a population increase of 47%. There will be five million jobs statewide, an increase of 51%. Although the number of miles per capita traveled in Colorado is expected to remain flat, the increase in population and employment will increase the demand for travel by approximately 47%. This growth will put heavy demands on Colorado's transportation system, especially in the Front Range Corridor.

The Front Range is forecast to grow from 4.9 million people in 2020 to 6.6 million in 2045, a 35% increase. The North Front Range/Upper Front Range Region (Larimer and Weld Counties) will grow 65% from 0.7 million to nearly 1.2 million people. Colorado Springs (El Paso County) will grow 39% from 0.7 million to 1.1 million persons. Metro Denver will grow 27% from 3.3 million to 4.2 million people. No action alter-natives for north and south of Denver on I-25 show vehicle travel times doubling in the next 20 years.

The Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission is initiating a decision-making process with interested local, state and federal stakeholders to move forward with passenger rail service along Colorado's Front Range. This public process will be consistent with the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) project delivery streamlining of environmental procedures to align with those of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

This process will blend a rail passenger service development document and a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that will prepare the state for preliminary design and project level NEPA. The elements of the preliminary effort will include:

  • identify the purpose and need;
  • identify alternative alignments/routes;
  • define service characteristics (commute only vs. all day service);
  • define technology, speeds, possible station spacing;
  • perform high level environmental analysis;
  • identify high level capital and operating costs; and
  • identify rights-of-way that need to be preserved.

CDOT has institutionalized streamlining measures that accelerate project delivery during planning. Examples include programmatic agreements and blended teams. CDOT will also conduct planning activities prior to formal NEPA initiation, which is consistent with the principles of the One Federal Decision MOU. CDOT has strong relationships with regulatory agencies and has demonstrated success in completing NEPA in less time than the nationwide average. Leveraging the FHWA Every Day Counts toolkit has also helped accelerate delivery of quality projects statewide.

Gaining endorsement from interested stakeholders on a shared vision will be critical to project delivery. A workable solution will respect corridor context including community and ecological values. Stakeholders will have opportunities to participate in process milestones to include purpose and need, screening criteria and alternatives analysis. To avoid duplication of effort, NEPA can build upon assumptions and analysis from previous studies in the corridor on the viability of alignments and technology.