Interstate 70 group pushes for study of high-speed transit system | CraigDailyPress.com

Interstate 70 group pushes for study of high-speed transit system

Sawyer D'Argonne/Summit Daily

What kind of impact would a new high-speed transit system make along the Interstate 70 corridor?

The I-70 Coalition, along with Development Research Partners, is pushing out a survey this week hoping to gather public insight from communities on the Front Range and I-70 corridor to determine the financial feasibility of a new 155-mile high-speed transit system with stops from Eagle County to the Denver International Airport.

The Federal Highway Administration and the Colorado Department of Transportation issued a long term plan to reduce congestion on I-70 in 2011, said Margaret Bowes, executive director of the I-70 Coalition. Among the groups recommendations — with consensus among stakeholders of the I-70 corridor — was continued highway improvement projects, non-infrastructure related improvements (better plowing, enforcement, and traveler information), and research into the feasibility of a high-speed system.

“We know that we could six-lane this whole corridor, and in a number of years it will be just as congested as it is today,” said Bowes. “To meet the needs through the year 2050 we need to do some highway widening, but also have some sort of high speed transit system to meet our needs…there are technologies today that we know would work for this corridor. It’s the financial feasibility that’s the big question mark. This study that the Development Research Partners is doing on behalf of a number of stakeholders is starting to get towards the answer of financial feasibility.”

The hypothetical system would be a train to carry passengers and light freight, creating a direct connection among communities between the Eagle County Regional Airport and the Denver International Airport, making stops along the way in Summit County and other western slope and Front Range communities.

Theoretically, the system would be able to reduce congestion along I-70, promising 24 round trips daily that would save travelers between 35 and 45 minutes between Eagle County and Denver. Initial research estimates that 5.1 million travelers, or 2.1 million of the 12.8 million vehicles that traveled through the Eisenhower/ Johnson Memorial Tunnels annually, would instead opt for the high-speed transit system in lieu of driving.

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“I think the tolerance for congestion is becoming less and less,” said Bowes. “If folks could get on a train and take a nap, and arrive in the fraction of the time without the stress it will be highly appealing to people.”

But the prospect is considerably easier said than done. Bowes said that because of the steep grades along the corridor traditional heavy or light rail systems wouldn’t work, meaning that the system would likely have to be constructed using magnetic levitation (maglev) technology — a system that uses two sets of magnets to push the train off the track. Additionally, Bowes noted Hyperloop and Arrivo, a new Los Angeles transportation startup, as other potential alternatives.

But new technologies are also expensive. Bowes said the price tag for a new maglev train, or something similar, would likely run somewhere in the ballpark of $13-16 billion, which raises other concerns about funding and eventual ticket prices for patrons.

“If such a system is built, it will have to be a public and private partnership,” said Bowes. “Private partners would have a business plan I imagine would need to price tickets in such a way to be viable, but I can’t speculate what the ticket costs would be.”

But the prospect of a new high-speed transit system is still in its relative infancy, and final discussions regarding which technology is most appropriate or how it would be funded are still a ways off. Instead, the I-70 Coalition — in partnership with Summit, Clear Creek, Eagle and Denver counties, along with Idaho Springs, CDOT, the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation and the Blackhawk Silver Dollar Metro District — is looking to gather data on community interest and the financial impact of easier transit to mountain areas.

“We have a stat that for every hour of delays on the corridor, it costs the state a million dollars in people’s time, and dollars not spend in the mountains,” said Amy Ford, communications director for CDOT. “A lot of the survey will look at economic impact of our congestion and what the potential relief could be. The community side of it is to continue to probe community interest in the corridor to see where people stand on all of this.”

The survey will focus less on specific details about the project, and more on travel habits and how they might change given a high-speed transit system. Different surveys will go out to businesses in the community, along with residents on the Front Range and in mountain communities to try and gather feedback about people’s habits and opinions of the proposed system.

“This study is looking at what the economic impacts would be if we had such a system,” said Bowes. “How would a high-speed transit system change business to business spending, and consumer to business spending? In other words, if you live on the Front Range, and you quit skiing because of traffic, how many trips might you make if there was a high-speed transit system with a reliable travel time? Would you come to the mountains more often and spend money in mountain communities?”

The survey is online only, and can be found at Bit.ly/I70Survey. The survey can be taken through the end of December.

“This is one more step in the process,” said Bowes. “We have no preconceived notions. We want to determine if it’s feasible, and we’re trying to arm ourselves with more information.”