Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) “We’re now going 70 miles an hour,” said Gov. Jared Polis, hunched over beside the train’s engineer, into what he thought was its PA system. “Feel that smooth ride at 70 miles an hour. Imagine getting out of your cars. Not having to navigate the Gap. Colorado Springs to Denver in an hour or less.”

“Who’s he talking to?” asked an onlooker from just outside the cab. The intercom on the train — a hydrogen-powered prototype hauling two cars full of state and local elected officials around a test track outside Pueblo — was not, in fact, operational.

“Can you hear me back there?” Polis asked. A minute later, he exited the cab and cupped his hands to shout: “Eighty miles an hour! This is 80 miles an hour, everybody!”

Communication issues aside, the message on Tuesday was clear: At a gathering at the federal government’s Transportation Technology Center, Polis and his administration’s top transportation officials made their most substantial and direct public comments yet about the urgency of moving forward with a plan for passenger rail service along the Front Range corridor.

The passage of billions of dollars in federal funding for rail projects as part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law represents a once-in-a-generation chance to make Front Range Passenger Rail a reality, said Shoshana Lew, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. But with so many cities and states across the country vying for a piece of the action — and lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House already targeting the programs for budget cuts — the funds won’t be available forever.

“Time is really of the essence, because the way these federal authorizations work is, some of the money is here now, and some of it can be taken away if you don’t act fast enough,” Lew said. “Waiting until the last year to compete for Colorado dollars is not a good idea, because you’re competing for a smaller and smaller part of the funds every year you lose.”

“It’s not a question of whether there’s going to be any passenger rail service within the United States, but the question is, will Colorado get a train, or will Texas or California get a train?” said Polis. “We’re on the map. We want to make sure Colorado gets passenger rail.”

Through legislation passed in 2021, Colorado lawmakers established the Front Range Passenger Rail District, a new taxing district consisting of all or part of more than a dozen counties along the Interstate 25 corridor. Governed by a 17-member board of directors appointed by local governments and the governor, the district has the authority to submit a tax measure funding passenger rail service for approval by voters within the district.

A vote could come as soon as next year — when, some supporters say, it would stand the best chance at passage in a high-turnout presidential election year — but officials also cautioned against rushing the completion of a service development plan, which will give voters a detailed idea of the initial cost of the project and the scope and frequency of service.

Before the small crowd of state and local leaders, Polis spoke of “the essential work needed to engage the public” to build support for the project.

“Many of you are civic leaders, and we want to engage you,” he said. “(County) commissioners, members of the legislature and community members — and we want to make sure we hear feedback from the community that shapes the future of train service.”

After hearing presentations from CDOT and rail district staff, Polis and other attendees boarded a new hydrogen-powered train for a loop around the test track at the TTC, a sprawling rail-industry R&D facility in eastern Pueblo County overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration. Built by Swiss firm Stadler, the hydrogen fuel-cell train — slated to become the country’s first hydrogen-powered train when it’s delivered to the San Bernardino County Transit Authority next year — costs around $14 million per 116-passenger vehicle.

“If we buy two, we get half off of the third, right?” Polis asked a Stadler representative as the train picked up speed.

What kind of trains would make up a potential Front Range rail fleet will depend largely on the service’s operator, which has yet to be chosen. Officials say Amtrak, which has expressed interest in the route, is an obvious possibility with some key advantages, but an independent operator is also an option.

In the cab of the train, Polis said Colorado has gone too long without the kind of intercity train travel that’s a common mode of transportation for residents in places like the northeastern U.S. The last regularly scheduled passenger rail service between Front Range cities ended in the 1970s.

“This has been planned for decades, and it’s time to just get it done,” Polis said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make this available as soon as possible.”

Andy Karsian, the rail district’s general manager, told CPR News earlier this month that a rough timeline for service to begin is “at the latest 10 to 13 years in the future.”