Lawmakers ask CDOT for Northwest Colorado passenger-rail development plan

Trevor Ballantyne
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Local and state leaders are eyeing the possible development of a regional passenger rail network to help meet the affordable housing and transportation needs facing Northwest Colorado.
Courtesy photo

Local and state leaders are eyeing the possible development of a regional passenger rail network to help meet the affordable housing and transportation needs facing Northwest Colorado.

Last week, State Rep. Meghan Lukens and State Sen. Dylan Roberts sent a letter to the Colorado Department of Transportation outlining the potential for a regional passenger rail system. The letter requests that the agency “expedite” the creation of a Service Development Plan to “make this service more competitive for federal grant opportunities and serve as a roadmap to guide the strategic development of rail transportation in the region.”

The lawmakers said the CDOT investment would represent a “critical next step” for the regional transportation plan, which would see existing rail infrastructure, operated by Union Pacific and serving the local coal industry, repurposed for passenger travel.

“Currently, we stand at a pivotal juncture where the urgency of environmental concerns intersects with the need for pragmatic solutions to housing and transportation challenges,” Lukens and Roberts wrote in their letter.

“Environmental prioritization, affordable housing solutions and economic growth would be direct beneficial impacts of this passenger rail,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that connecting the “more affordable communities” of Hayden and Craig to Steamboat Springs would create a “realistic workforce connection” between the communities and help alleviate traffic and safety concerns on U.S. Highway 40.

Days before reaching out to CDOT, county officials from Routt County, Hayden, Steamboat and Craig joined Lukens, Roberts, resort representatives, members of Gov. Jared Polis’ and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper’s offices, and CDOT Executive Director Shoshana M. Lew on a tour of the local rail line.

“The good news is we already have the most expensive piece of infrastructure in place which are the (Union Pacific) rail lines,” Lukens said.

In addition to the support from the state lawmakers, a white paper circulated by the Steamboat Springs Resort Corp. and included in the City Council agenda packet this week outlines the company’s support for the regional passenger rail network with an emphasis on its ability to help meet the region’s affordable housing and transportation needs while improving the visitor experience for the resort and addressing climate change locally.

“Hayden and Craig continue to provide opportunity for affordable and attainable housing and the Steamboat Springs workforce is rapidly expanding into these areas,” the white paper states. “There is a connection between the need for more affordable housing access and reliable affordable transportation.”

Construction of a passenger rail line to Steamboat and Hayden began in the early 1900s and operated until its closure in 1968, according to the resort’s white paper, but the rail line was expanded in 2007 by Xcel Energy company to link local coal mines with the Hayden Power Generation System.

Now, with the closure of the Hayden Power Station and Craig Station scheduled for 2030, the resort said “initial discussions” with Union Pacific have indicated a willingness on the part of the freight rail company “to consider transitioning the current rail to allow for passenger rails.”

By making this transformation, the resort underscored that the opportunity for passenger rail links to better connect “bedroom communities” and other locations bordering Steamboat in addition to providing more efficient and reliable transportation to and from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

According to the resort, the regional airport boasted the second-highest growth in available seats between 2019 and 2021 and airport authorities say they are seeing 50% more passengers than a decade ago with that volume expected to increase in coming years.

With connections to Steamboat, the airport, Craig and Hayden, the resort also sees value of a passenger rail not only for economic development, “but as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emission to enhance the visitor experience.”

Locally, the resort estimates transportation is responsible for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions in Routt County, adding in the white paper that, “it is proven that rail produces significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than cars and trucks.”

A feasibility study commissioned by the city of Steamboat Springs, Routt County and the city of Craig in January, will identify transportation needs within Northwest Colorado and outline a structure for a regional transportation authority that would be created to operate the passenger train links, according to the white paper.

In parallel with that study, the resort and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation have engaged a firm to prepare a high-level cost-benefit analysis around the potential passenger rail system in Yampa Valley.

With the plan still in the early stages, officials have expressed their desire to pursue the development of a passenger rail system with the resort expressing a commitment to “track state and federal funding” opportunities while continuing discussions with Union Pacific and other stakeholders, according to its white paper.

“We would like to see this roll forward,” Steamboat Springs City Council President Robin Crossan said ahead of the city council meeting Tuesday.

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