Colorado high speed rail studies

Conceptual drawings of a mag-lev line and station, although not a preferred architectural style.
Conceptual drawings of a mag-lev line and station, although not a preferred architectural style.

Study finds mag-lev trains feasible for the I-70 corridor at cost of $5.5 billion

Front Range high-speed rail cost estimated at $14 billion

by Allen Best

Technology isn’t a barrier for high-speed trains on the I-70 corridor between metropolitan Denver and mountain resorts, according to a study now being wrapped up by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The cost? That’s another matter.

Magnetic-levitation technology is a big winner in the study. Mag-lev trains use electric force to cause trains to levitate over a rail while moving. Supporters such as Kevin Coates point to the absence of friction in reducing maintenance and operating costs. For the I-70 corridor, mag-lev also offers the advantage of being able to handle steeper grades than steel-wheeled trains.

The study finds that mag-lev can handle grades of 8 to 10 percent and theoretically up to 15 percent.

This compares with the existing grades of 6 to 7 percent for I-70.

Steel-wheeled trains can handle grades of up to 3 percent. Because of this limitation, the study concludes that 60 percent of the route from Golden to Eagle would require tunnels, including a 20-mile tunnel from Georgetown to Silverthorne. All this would boost the cost to $32 billion.

Mag-lev, with a need for fewer tunnels, would cost $13.5 billion for Golden to Eagle, or $5.5 billion if the line ends at Breckenridge. This assumes a somewhat slower high-speed train of 120 mph, which would decrease ridership. Other mag-lev trains could reach speeds of 150 mph but at higher costs.

The only existing use of mag lev for high speed trains is in China, although it may be deployed in Japan, above, where it has been tested, and in South Korea.
The only existing use of mag lev for high speed trains is in China, although it may be deployed in Japan, above, where it has been tested, and in South Korea.

The alignment envisioned in the study sees a short tunnel under Loveland Pass. From Keystone, the train would go directly to Breckenridge, bypassing Silverthorne and Frisco. The alignment deviates by up to a mile from existing highways.

Beyond Breckenridge, the line would tunnel under the Tenmile Range to Copper Mountain.

Along the gentle terrain of the I-25 corridor, steel-wheeled trains would be most cost effective. High-speed rail in the 180 miles between Fort Collins and Pueblo could be provided for $14 billion, according to the study. Such high-speed trains already operate in France, Spain and Germany.

The study finds that ridership of an I-70 or mountain train would be boosted if a high-speed train also exists along the Front Range.

Financing terms available?

But who will pay for these trains? That’s always been the hard question. Ridership studies find that operation and maintenance could be covered without subsidy. But building it is another matter.

Private financiers have said they could come up with $1 billion for a $6 billion mag-lev train between Golden and Breckenridge. But where would the rest of the money come from. C-DOT has an annual budget of $1 billion to $1.5 billion for all of Colorado, for everything.

In time—certainly not for a few years, given the gridlock in Congress—the federal government might come up with more money. Against the broad stretch of history, the federal government has financed most of our major transportation. Before the budget impasse, it had agreed to do so again, this time with high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We don’t have the expectation that it’s feasible in the near term. In other words, we can’t find the funding in the next 5 to 10 years,” says David Krutsinger, manager of special projects and rail for C-DOT. “And a substantial funding source would be required to make it feasible in the future.”

A regional taxing district would have to be assembled, perhaps akin to the taxing district that paid for construction of the Moffat Tunnel, providing a passage under the Continental Divide in what was intended to be a direct line from Denver to Salt Lake City. Property taxes from Denver to Craig along the railroad line were levied from the start of construction in 1922 to retirement of the bonds in 1983. The cost of that tunnel, however, was $6.62 million, although the full cost, including interest, was almost $24 million. For more, see Wikipedia entry.

In this case, a taxing district of Eagle, Summit, Clear Creek and Jefferson counties couldn’t deliver enough money short of staggering levels of taxation. The tax base would have to be broadened to metropolitan Denver and perhaps to more outlying areas. For example, would Steamboat benefit from the proximity of such trains? Grand Junction? If so, says Krutsinger, a sales tax of less than a half-cent might be enough to pay the costs.

He also points out that high-speed trains would have to be packaged with other transportation improvements, from bicycle paths to airports. Benefits would have to be part of the package, too, ranging from improved air quality to increased jobs.

Of course, as the oversight committee sees this, no additional tax for transportation is likely until FastTracks is completed, possibly no sooner than 2040. Then again, that could change. The Denver-Boulder Turnpike, started in 1952, was paid off in 15 years, 15 years ahead of schedule.

Taking the leap

This study is part of the C-DOT process agreed to by communities along the I-70 corridor over the last 15 years. A record of decision signed in 2011 called for upgrades to the highway while pursuing a longer-range mass-transit solution. The difficult piece in all this is Clear Creek County, where there is very limited land for new lanes without tearing down houses or dismembering mountains. For portions of the county, I-70 is reduced to two lanes.

Since 2011, there have been two significant proposals: Parsons submitted an unsolicited proposal to expand I-70 in a public-private partnership, creating new lanes and a new tunnel. C-DOT has also begun studying the idea of creating a third lane on Sundays by using a shoulder lane, then charging a toll for those vehicles, who are assured a minimum rate of speed, say 45 mph.

Clear Creek County Commissioner Tim Mauck insists that his jurisdiction wants no part of wholesale expansion of I-70, as per the agreement reflected in the ROD. What he does see ahead are “some serious conversations” about how a high-speed mass transit can be financed.

“We keep getting closer and closer with these studies, but we still always seem to stop short of taking the leap, to really go out and seize the opportunity to bring a new transportation system into the corridor,” says Mauck. The next step, he says, will be to articulate the message that “we’re serious about this. If this is the best technology, let’s figure out how to get this thing constructed.”

That’s also the message from Miller Hudson, currently the representative of Colorado Mag-Lev. The company consists primarily of General Atomics, the California-based defense contractor, which has a mag-lev test track at La Hoya.

“I really think the ball is in the court of the corridor communities, and if they want to see it someday, they are going to have to push forward in the next couple of years until there is funding,” says Hudson.

This conversation is likely to get resistance in Summit County, which is already something of an exurb for the Front Range, but even in Vail, where many people see their economic and lifestyle futures more satisfactorily secured through traffic at Eagle County Regional Airport. In these views, the future is best served by continued congealed traffic on I-70.

Mauck does not see that as realistic. Mountain communities, he says, remain in the growth-mode, seeking to expand business opportunities. And Front Range population continues to expand.


Denver routes: Three possible routes have been identified for linking the mountain train from Golden with DIA, but at an additional cost of $3.2 billion:

1) along the new beltway being planned in the metropolitan area’s northwest region, then connecting to E-470: 2) following I-70 to Arvada, then hewing to I-76 to avoid the congestion of I-70; and 3) skirting the metropolitan area on the south side by C-470 and then E-470.

Ridership: How many riders would high-speed trains draw? The study finds that stand-alone mountain trains would generate 3.5 to 4 million annual riders, but that ridership would surge to 4.6 to 62 million if connected to a Front Range train system.

Congesting I-70: Both the Great Recession and Twin Tunnels work has dampened traffic since 2007, but C-DOT remains confident in its long-range forecasts. By 2020, congestion is expected to occur on Thursdays through Tuesdays.

By 2035, congestion will worsen far more as population along the Front Range and the I-70 corridors grows from the existing 4.2 million to 6.4 million. By 2035, traffic planners expect the 2.5- to 3-hour drive from Summit County to Denver to expand to 5 hours, worse if there are accidents or heavy snowfall.

Driver-less cars: In California and Nevada, you can now find driverless cars. The automated driving is expected to remove human error and recklessness, allow closer spacing of vehicles. But C-DOT planners don’t think driver-less cars are the answer for I-70. “On weekends, when cars are already going bumper to bumpers, going driverless doesn’t provide you any more real estate on which to jam more cars,” says Krutsinger.

This article came form the Nov. 18,2013 issue of Mountain Town News. To see a complete copy, please write to [email protected].

Limited use of mag-lev technology for trains

Although the technology has existed for a century, magnetic-levitation has been rarely used for high-speed transportation. The lone exception Shanghai, China, where mag-lev trains have operated on a 18.6-mile segment in since 2004. Trains reach maximum speeds of 268 mph, although averages range from 139 to 156 mph.

While the Chinese chose to use conventional high-speed steel-wheeled technology to connect Shanghai and Beijing, mag-lev projects are reported moving forward in both Japan and South Korea.

Several places have mag-lev trains, but not at high speeds.

“Nobody has put the whole package together – high speed and climbing 7 percent grades, at least not over the lengths that we’re talking about,” says C-DOT’s David Krutsinger.

Allen Best

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