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RTD's University of Colorado A-Line train at Denver's Union Station on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polling released last week by the state shows that Colorado voters along the Front Range generally favor raising sales taxes to pay for a passenger train running from Fort Collins to Pueblo. 

But that’s just part of the story.

What the survey didn’t test was by exactly how much voters would be willing to raise taxes to cover what’s estimated to be a $5 billion endeavor. And the pollster who conducted it says the specific amount people would be asked to fork over will absolutely change the results — and likely for the worse. 

“The details will matter, there’s no doubt about it,” said David Flaherty, whose Louisville-based Magellan Strategies conducted the poll. 

He added that “support will likely decline when we have actual numbers.”

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That highlights the challenge that backers of a Front Range rail system will have in securing funding for their endeavor, which could go before voters as soon as next year. Coloradans have been unwilling to raise taxes for transportation in the past — they overwhelmingly rejected a 0.62% sales tax to improve roads in 2018 — and time and again have proven reluctant to loosen their purse strings for big-ticket initiatives on other issues, too.

The survey, in conjunction with RBI Strategies & Research, found that 61% of likely 2020 general election voters living in 13 Front Range counties would be willing to support a tax increase to pay for passenger rail service at an estimated cost of $5 billion. 

Additionally, 85% said they support the idea of passenger rail service as a mode of transportation for residents and communities along the Front Range. That’s despite the sometimes fraught relationship Front Range communities — like in Boulder and Adams counties — have had with promised RTD rail service. 

The RTD University of Colorado A-Line platform at Peoria Street Station. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The poll was conducted between Oct. 4 and 8 among 600 likely 2020 general election voters in  Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Huerfano, Jefferson, Larimer, Las Animas, Pueblo and Weld counties. It had a margin of error of 4%. Magellan is a Republican pollster and RBI is a Democratic one.

“This survey was completely conceptual, it was not a hard measurement of ballot language,” Flaherty said. “It was never meant to be. It’s a very preliminary measure of concept.”

That said, Flaherty thinks the results are positive and prove that it’s worth continuing the discussion. “It’s undeniable that the general idea does very well in the counties and communities where this would happen.”

The findings give members of the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, charged with studying the proposal, a good argument to bring to lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session as they craft a referred ballot measure. 

“I believe that we have a clear mandate that Front Range residents in Colorado love passenger rail service,” said Sal Pace, a member of the rail commission who is a former Pueblo County Commissioner and state lawmaker. “This gives us the mandate to go the legislature and ask to take the next step.”

Jacob Riger, vice-chair of the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, said he thinks there is also plenty of room to build on the support.

“This is new to everyone,” he said.”We have not yet conducted comprehensive public and stakeholder engagement …  We will be reaching out in our planning process over the next several months to the public.”

Pace wants the legislature to draw a special district and refer ballot language to either the 2020 or 2021 ballot depending on whether the Front Range rail commission can finalize plans for the initiative by June. 

If they get that done, voters would be asked in November 2020 to raise sales taxes, under Pace’s proposal. If not, the question will be delayed a year. 

Gov. Jared Polis’ office said in a written statement that the Democrat is supportive of Front Range passenger rail and that he is in favor of asking voters to approve it in the coming years.

“It’s past time to better plan for growth, reduce traffic and move Colorado’s transportation system into the 21st century,” Polis’ spokesman Conor Cahill said in a written statement. “Now is the time to create a real plan and feasibility study to prepare a proposal for a vote in 2020 or 2021 or 2022. Front Range passenger rail and (Amtrak’s) Southwest Chief could support Colorado’s future growth, our economy and benefit the people of our state with inexpensive, sustainable, reliable travel choices.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. The Democrat says he is favor of putting a question about Front Range passenger rail service before voters in the coming years. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The commission has yet to figure out exactly what the sales tax increase would be — or if a property tax increase is more viable — but says they are working with finance experts to determine the number. 

“The entire burden would not fall on the sales tax,” Pace added, saying that the proposed route would also potentially get money from private sources, ticket revenue and commercial investment in rail stops. 

Riger said talks with state lawmakers are just beginning and that the commission is also looking at federal dollars as a potential funding source. 

“All our options are still on the table,” Riger said, adding that what it really comes down to is weighing political timing against the status of the commission’s planning process. Once that process is done, the commission expects to have a better idea of cost and scope. 

Pace said he doesn’t think the failure of Proposition 110, the proposed sales tax increase to pay for transportation, in 2018 is an indicator of future. 

“We’re polling significantly better than 110 ever polled,” he said. “Plus, 110, for as valuable as it would have been for transportation, was difficult for voters to understand.”

Both Flaherty and Pace think that the Front Range rail tax hike question would be easier for voters to understand if it was pitched in terms of potential benefits to their day-to-day lives. 

“Starting at 61% for a ballot measure is a good position,” Pace said. “We have to deliver a clear vision to the voters that includes technology, route alignment, (station) plans and stops that is in a very easy to understand the final product. That’s what the commission has been working on producing for a couple years.”

Updated on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, at 11 a.m.: This story had been updated to correct the spelling of the name of the vice-chair of the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. He is Jacob Riger.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....