CDOT releases study of I-70 rail

Reid Tulley

Imagine getting from Denver to Breckenridge in 31 minutes on a weekend powder day. No stressful traffic backup, no driving in snow and ice, just you and your skis floating inches above a magnetic track flying 180 mph up into the mountains.

That idea is not too far off for Colorado Department of Transportation planners, as they dream of a levitating train system powered by magnets to transport people through the I-70 mountain corridor.

The Colorado Depatment of Transportation has issued the results of the Advanced Guideway System Feasibility Study, concerning such a system.

And one stop being proposed is at the Highway 40 junction in Clear Creek County.

The study has revealed that while the system is feasible in terms of alignment and available technology, such a system is not currently financially feasible. The possibility of financial feasibility in the future would depend on significant state and local financial commitments as well as some level of private-sector and federal financial involvement.

Steel wheel or magnetic levitation

CDOT investigated rail technologies that could be available by 2014 for the guideway system and identified magnetic levitation (maglev) technologies as the most feasible for a rail system through the corridor.

Maglev rail systems levitate and propel trains using magnets along a guideway. Maglev trains, such as the kind in Shanghai, are designed to operate at high speeds, reaching speeds of 180 mph, which would make the ride time half that of driving the corridor.

There are a number of reasons CDOT wants to install a maglev train rather than a traditional steel wheel and rail system. One of the top reasons is the steepness of the mountain corridor.

The mountain corridor climbs at a 7 percent grade in a number of areas, which poses a problem for steel wheel and rail trains that can only climb 3 percent grades.

If a steel wheel and rail system were installed, nearly 60 percent of the rail would need to travel through tunnels to allow for the train to make the climb to the mountain communities, according to Krutsinger.

The amount of tunneling that would be required to allow a traditional steel wheel and rail system to climb through the mountain corridor makes the option cost prohibitive and increases the estimated costs by three to four times, according to Krutsinger.

Maglev trains on the other hand can climb a steeper grade such as 7 percent and therefore would require far less tunneling to be completed.

The maglev trains also travel much faster than steel wheel and rail trains. The estimated travel time from the intersection of I-70 and C-470 to the Eagle County Regional Airport for the maglev system is 73 minutes, according to the study, while the time to drive the route in a vehicle is 119 minutes.

“If you don’t provide a significant reduction in travel time, you don’t get the riders,” Krutsinger said.

Possible stop at Exit 232

One of the stops that is proposed for the system is a stop in Clear Creek County, though where is still in question.

“One of the outstanding questions is where do you put the station in Clear Creek County,” said David Krutsinger, project manager for CDOT.

One option would be to have the station located at the Highway 40 junction near Empire.

“The Empire junction would be a great connector as a jumping off point,” Krutsinger said. “Though that decision really would be driven by local input from Clear Creek County and dialogue between Clear Creek and Grand County.”

To get people over Berthoud Pass and into Grand County, Krutsinger said CDOT supports a Greyhound route from Empire into Grand County.

“Transit is the best long-term solution, and this study takes a big step in that direction by identifying the very real opportunities for maglev technology in the corridor — and issues that remain to be addressed,” said Tim Mauck, a county commissioner for Clear Creek County in a statement regarding the study. “As this study found, maglev technology exists and is feasible in this mountain corridor, and that is why the county and stakeholders throughout the corridor are going to continue to push for more detailed economic information so we can identify future funding sources to help pay for the best solution for Colorado.”

Grand County Commissioners and Town of Winter Park trustees as well as Winter Park Resort officials have not yet had a chance to review the study, they said when contacted this week, and so have not yet formed opinions about it.

Lack of FundING

The capital costs of the project are between $13.3 billion and $16.5 billion. No small check for CDOT, a department that has seen a shrinking budget in recent years.

Krutsinger said the department’s budget has been shrinking by 3 percent annually due to a number of reasons, though the main reason is revenue CDOT generates from taxes placed on fuel sales aren’t adjusted for inflation.

The revenue generated by the gas tax is also taking a hit as more and more vehicles on the road become more fuel-efficient.

In order to secure enough funding to advance the project, CDOT would need funding from a number of sources including the federal government and state government as well as from individual counties and private sector businesses.

“It’s so expensive, you need the ski resorts and hotel industry and all of the summer tourism industry to say it’s time has come,” Krutsinger said.

Discussions with ski resorts regarding an extra fee being placed on lift tickets to help fund the project were not favored, he said.

CDOT has other options to raise the needed funding to build the system such as a tax or fee for Colorado residents.

Once the system is up and running, ridership fees should be able to maintain the system, according to Krutsinger.

“CDOT is trying to put the options on the table and let everybody move together on what the best strategy is to move forward,” he said.

Though the feasibility of installing high speed rail is still questionable in terms of funding, CDOT has been working through ways to help alleviate traffic congestion on the highway in the short-term by planning to implement a peak period shoulder lane on eastbound I-70 from the US 40 junction to the Twin Tunnels.

The peak period shoulder lane would open during the busiest times on the road and require users to pay a fee.

CDOT is considering building more toll lanes along the I-70 mountain corridor in conjunction with the rail system. The first phase of the proposed guideway system would travel from the I-70 and C-470 intersection near Golden to the Eagle County Regional Airport with a number of stops along the way.

Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334

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