Weighing high-speed rail in Colorado’s I-70 corridor

Transrapid COLORADO AGS-SOTI-2012-10-10 Evaluating the soundness of mag-lev and other transportation technologies

As part of its study of the potential for high-speed rail in the Interstate 70 corridor, the Colorado Department of Transportation invited technology companies to submit proposals. Eleven were accepted, and most of them had representations at a technology forum held in December.

Afterward, Mountain Town News talked with David Krutsinger, manager of C-DOT’s Transit & Rail Program.

What do you find most interesting about the proposals?

The different business models. Some of the technology providers have more of a private-sector orientation. They want to run transportation as a private business using rights-of-way. In that case, a new form of governance might be needed, perhaps similar to the way that investor-owned utilities are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, to prevent misuse of the right of way and ensure that transit fares remain as low as possible.

David Krutsinger

David Krutsinger

That’s just one of the ideas that we will explore more beginning in the spring as we analyze the ridership models, examining how much can be recaptured in fares, and other revenue streams.

It seemed that there was a huge variation in the cost estimates, even if the cheapest of them ran well over $1 billion. How can you tell whether there’s any realness to any of them?

Some of the technology vendor’s cost estimates don’t include things like parking or transit stations, which would normally be associated with a transit investment. We’ll be trying to create a more apples-to-apples comparisons between the various technology proposals.

With our ridership study, we’ll get a second opinion (a previous study had been done in the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority study several years ago) about how many people will use it and what fare you will have to charge to make it happen. That will tell us how much fare revenue we can expect, and if fares won’t pay for it all, what kind of subsidy would be needed. But then highways no longer pay for themselves either: the gas tax has not increased since 1992. Nor has it been indexed for inflation.

One possible option with transit is to recoup revenues of the higher development potential at sites adjacent to transit stations, to help buy down the cost of building the system.

Going forward, we will be having discussions with local governments about their readiness to work on ideas about land-use planning around station development and value-capture around stations.

To be eligible for further consideration, technologies needed to accommodate 4,900 passengers per hour in each direction. Why that figure?

That’s the equivalent of one lane of traffic, which we project will be the needed additional capacity in 2035. Fundamentally, you would build a transit system to provide much higher capacity than you could achieve by just putting more buses or van shuttles on the highway.. That’s the expectation. We also require that the technology be expandable. By putting more of the carrier cars on the rail or guideway, that capacity could be increased even more.

Six of the 11 who met your criteria called for the use of magnetic levitation technology. Was that a surprise to you?

No, it wasn’t. We’ve come a long way in technology in the last 11 or 12 years. If somebody in 2000 had said they could give you a mobile phone that also took photos and allowed you to browse the Internet, you would have laughed at them. Similarly mag-lev has come a long ways. It’s now in commercial use in Shanghai China. Many companies are pursuing mag-lev. From the perspective of I-70, it can handle ice and snow and has no problem with steeper grades, unlike steel wheel on rail.high-speed rail 2004

What’s kind of interesting is how the mag-lev technology and other technological components, too, have been partially developed as a result of Defense Department initiatives during the last 10 years. For example, General Atomics developed electromagnetic launch system, to launch airplanes from naval aircraft carriers very quickly, replacing the old sling system.

The proponents of mag-lev say that a key advantage is that it reduces friction, reducing maintenance cost.

It’s a little more expensive up front, but it pays itself by having lower operating costs, both because of the absence of friction, which creates wear and tear, but some of the systems that have been proposed are completely automated, meaning you’re not paying driver/operator salaries. With that savings, you recoup your up-front costs over the lifetime of the project.

Are there any other applications around the world of mag-lev for high-speed transit?

No, but American Maglev, which is one of the submitters for I-70, recently got preliminary approval from Orlando, Fla., for a 15-mile line from the airport to the convention center. But other approvals are still needed. They haven’t written a check yet. An eventual 40-mile, $800 million system is planned.

Is TransRapid, the company that built the Chinese system, interested in I-70?

Yes, they’ve been accepted, but didn’t come to the technology forum. They felt their reputation was sufficiently well known.

What also stood out were the ones that envisioned smaller vehicles, kind of a personal high-speed transit.

Swift Coach in CO1Of the 11, there were 3 or 4 that had that concept partially or fully in their thinking. It met our criterion for expandability. Personal rapid transport were proposed to start as  a distribution system from a hub, say at Frisco or Silverthorne, or at a business park, say the Denver Tech Center or Interlocken. It might be a complement to the main I-70 transit, something to take you the final mile or so.

Some people have said that we’re likely to see automated cars, such as is now being tested in California by Google, which will reduce the space gaps between vehicles required when human operations are involved. That, they say, is the transportation of the future.

I do think that’s the strongest challenge to the personal rapid transit ideas. That said, driverless cars don’t necessarily solve your congestion problems. If you think about traffic jams, such as occur on I-70, they’re already bumper to bumper. The developing technology might allow bumper to bumper at a somewhat higher speed. But there’s only so much room for cars. As distributor systems, however, personal rapid transit ideas have a lot of merit in preserving the walkable alpine village feel most people enjoy about Colorado mountain communities.

If I’m not mistaken, this study is to look at both the I-25 and I-70 corridors in Colorado. But your emphasis is on I-70. Why?

Constraints can provide focus to deliver solutions sooner. That’s why subways systems work so well in San Francisco and New York City with all their rivers and bays really reducing transportation options. In the mountains, the space for expansion of lanes is limited. That’s what is sort of forcing a decision earlier, is that we’re running out of space, and we need a space-efficient solution. Along the Front Range, space is less of an issue, but the five-days-a-week demand would still drive the need for high speed transit solutions.

How soon might we see one of these technologies in place on the I-70 corridor?

The absolute soonest we could see something built, if we could find the funding, is 2025. But put that into context. FasTracks, which was approved by voters in 2004, promised to build 120 miles in 12 years. They will have about 80 miles of that built in the 12-year time frame. This project is for 50 miles from C-470 to Summit County, and another 30 miles if you extend it east to DIA.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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