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Gov. Polis signs off on Front Range passenger rail district

July 2, 2021 GMT

DENVER (AP) — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has signed off on the creation of a new taxing district to coordinate the creation of a Front Range passenger railway up and down the Interstate 25 corridor.

But don’t make any travel plans yet. The state may have a powerful likely partner in Amtrak, but the first trains won’t be ready to roll for at least a couple years, The Denver Post reports.

And the regional rail line faces potential political and cost hurdles.

The new Front Range Passenger Rail District, created by Senate Bill 238, will take shape early next year. It will cover all or parts of 13 counties near I-25 between the Wyoming and New Mexico state lines, including all of metro Denver.

The district and its appointed board will begin formalizing plans for the first stretches of the railway. It’s likely to include a route north of Denver that goes through Boulder, with the district potentially coordinating with the Denver-based Regional Transportation District to share costs between the railway and RTD’s unfinished northwest line.

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Money will be scarce at first, however, since the district will need to seek approval from voters within its boundaries to collect any new sales tax.

But Polis’ signing of the legislation into law Wednesday, in a ceremony outside the Pueblo Union Depot in southern Colorado, marked a big milestone.

“A dedicated railroad connecting communities from New Mexico to Colorado to Wyoming isn’t just great for our environment but, as our history shows, it will spur innovation and move people, ideas and businesses,” Polis, a Democrat, said in a statement provided by his office. “I’ve long supported Front Range Rail and am thrilled my administration is beginning to deliver on this promise.”

The district’s large board, which must begin meeting by mid-May next year, will include 17 voting members:

—Six appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. One must live in an area that was promised rail service by RTD’s FasTracks plan but has not yet received it.

—10 appointed by regional transportation planning organizations for metro Denver; the Colorado Springs area; Pueblo; the northern Front Range, including parts of Larimer and Weld counties; and an organization representing Huerfano and Las Animas counties. These appointees also are subject to Senate confirmation.

—One appointed by the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

—Several non-voting advisory members will represent the freight railroads, Amtrak and other organizations.

In supporting the railway, Amtrak envisions three round trips per day between Fort Collins and Pueblo along existing freight railroads, with one of them traveling farther north to Cheyenne, Wyoming. All would stop at Denver’s Union Station.

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Amtrak’s long-range expansion plans across the country would benefit from President Joe Biden’s now-$1 trillion infrastructure package, but its executives say its involvement in Colorado doesn’t hinge on that bill.

So far, it’s unclear how much of the costs would be covered by Amtrak, which is likely to operate the line, and how much by state money or a district sales tax. The new law requires a detailed services development plan, an operating plan and attempts to seek federal funding before the district can ask voters to approve a tax.

A recent state report estimated that initial Front Range service could cost as little as $2 billion. Costs for a full build-out, along dedicated double-track between Fort Collins and Pueblo, could soar to $14 billion. There’s also been discussion about linking the line farther south to Trinidad, which is along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line.

Most but not all Republicans in the legislature opposed the bill over objections that include the potential railway’s costs and concerns about the potential use of eminent domain to acquire property. Commissioners in El Paso and Douglas counties also opposed the bill.

The new district will replace the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, which for years has studied the potential for a north-south rail line.