Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) Colorado’s plan to reestablish passenger rail service along the Front Range doesn’t yet have funding, a name, a final route and station map, or an opening date in sight.

But ahead of an imminent decision on whether to ask voters in November to raise money for the new service with a small sales tax hike, the state board overseeing the effort spent time this week discussing with Amtrak officials details as minute as fare structures, bike racks and pet policies.

Though it’s not official yet, Thursday’s meeting of the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission was another indication that Amtrak, the nation’s quasi-public passenger rail corporation, is almost certain to be selected as the service’s operator, if the decades-in-the-making proposal finally becomes a reality.

“We are eager to partner with you, with the many potential future state partners,” Nicole Bucich, Amtrak’s vice president of network development, told district board members.

Bucich said her team, tasked with planning and implementing new passenger lines across the country, was created two years ago Thursday, in the wake of billions in new federal rail funding passed as part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

Already, Amtrak operates 28 “state-supported services” for 20 different state and local partners, and a 29th, the new Borealis train between Chicago and St. Paul, is scheduled to begin service next week. Altogether, these state-funded routes account for about half of Amtrak’s annual ridership.

Though some state or regional transit authorities operate their own passenger trains, or contract with private operators to do so, Amtrak has long been viewed as a shoo-in to operate Front Range rail because of federal laws guaranteeing its access to the national rail network and giving its passenger trains preference over freight traffic. Forgoing that special access could be a dealbreaker for a new line on the Front Range’s busy, privately-owned railroads, which have already spelled trouble for local commuter-rail projects like the Regional Transportation District’s B Line.

Even before the passage of billions in new rail funding, Amtrak officials spoke highly of the Front Range corridor. They included the line, which would run between Pueblo and Fort Collins and potentially beyond, in a 15-year expansion plan released in 2020. When Gov. Jared Polis and other state officials, hoping to drum up support for legislation to kickstart the rail funding process, took a train to Longmont in March, it was on a demonstration train provided by Amtrak.

“It was a great day, and that’s a great opportunity for us to be able to promote these new services across the country,” said Bucich.

The FRPR district was created by the Legislature in 2021. It encompasses all or part of 13 counties along the Interstate 25 corridor, and is governed by an appointed board of directors made up of state and local officials.

With the help of state funding and federal grants, the district’s small staff is finalizing a service development plan that would outline the route, stations, frequency and other service details of the completed line. But a financial analysis presented to board members earlier this year concluded that a district-wide sales tax of just 0.2% would be enough to fund a phased approach that envisions a “starter service” of three trains per day between Denver and Fort Collins by 2029, expanding to six trains per day between Fort Collins and Pueblo by 2035.

Polling conducted this year showed strong support for a sales tax to fund the project. The district’s board had hoped to make a decision as early as March on whether to refer a tax measure to the 2024 ballot, or wait until 2026. But board members put off the decision again at their April board meeting, opting instead to conduct another round of polling to “truth test” the findings, at the insistence of Polis’ office.

“The governor and his team are really important to the success of this enterprise at the ballot,” said board chair Chris Nevitt. “Come hell or high water, we’re going to (decide) at the May board meeting.”

The board meeting is scheduled for May 31.