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“I’m absolutely not supportive of that”: Front Range passenger train service appears derailed on arrival at Capitol

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, says she doesn’t support train service on Colorado’s Front Range and that transportation dollars should be spent elsewhere

RTD's University of Colorado A-Line train at Denver's Union Station on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The 2020 legislative session hasn’t yet begun, but a goal of Gov. Jared Polis already appears to be derailed. 

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, told reporters on Friday that she is “absolutely not supportive” of legislation to create a Front Range passenger train system. 

Proponents were eyeing the 2020 legislative session to offer a bill drawing a special taxation district where voters would be asked to fund the estimated $5 billion project. The idea, which has been explored and discussed by the state for years, is for passenger rail service to span from Trinidad north to the Wyoming state line.

That span is where most of Colorado’s population lives, and Polis and others see train service as a way to potentially decrease congestion building on Interstate 25. 

But without Becker’s support — she is the top Democrat in the House — it’s highly unlikely any bill could be passed in 2020. 

Becker cited unfulfilled promises by the Regional Transportation District to create a rail system linking Boulder and Longmont to Denver, despite the fact that people in those communities have been taxed since 2005 to pay for it. She also said there are existing needs in the state’s transportation system that require funding right now, like Interstate 70, and that “there’s a whole lot of work that needs to happen before folks explore” passenger train service.

“I think folks need to spend the time to understand the issue, the problems we are trying to address what the costs are — what the technology is,” Becker said. “What you plan for today, given how things are evolving technologically, could be completely obsolete within 10 years.” 

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, on stage. Colorado lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis attended a post-session forum hosted by The Colorado Sun and CBS 4 at the University of Denver on May 13, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Becker pointed to autonomous vehicles as one example of rapidly changing transportation technology and electric scooters as another. “Who thought scooters were going to be a thing three years ago?” she asked.

Polis, a fellow Democrat, touted the idea of a Front Range passenger rail system as part of his 2018 campaign. Last year, he doubled down on his support. 

“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 in October. “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.”

Cahill said the governor thinks Front Range rail could help the state deal with “future growth, our economy and benefit the people of our state with inexpensive, sustainable, reliable travel choices.”

Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, is another big proponent of Front Range passenger rail service. He also said it could be part of the state’s transportation future.

But he acknowledges Becker’s concerns, and both leaders say they have spoken to each other about the proposal. 

“I understand part of that apprehension,” Garcia said. “… I still think there has to be a willingness to say ‘not all of our solutions will be on Interstate 70 and I-25.”

Interstate 70 gridlock surrounds CDOT’s new Snowstang bus to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area during its inaugural trip, photographed aboard its sister bus to the Loveland Ski Area on Saturday, December 14, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sal Pace, a former state lawmaker and Pueblo County commissioner who sits on a state panel charged with exploring the implementation of Front Range passenger rail service, on Friday said his coalition is not ready to run major legislation this year. 

“However, in actuality, the residents of Boulder will see rail service quicker when Front Range passenger rail is ultimately implemented,” he told The Colorado Sun. “That’s partly why 85% of residents want Front Range Passenger Rail. Sixty-one percent say they’re willing to pay for it.” 

Pace cited an October poll, paid for by the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission he sits on, that showed 85% of voters living in 13 Front Range counties support passenger rail as a form of transportation and 61% said they’d be willing to pay for it. He added that supporters of Front Range rail service will keep moving forward with their ideas and plans.

The Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission was funded by the legislature in 2018 with $2.5 million to explore the implementation of passenger train service. Becker is termed limited and this is slated to be her last legislative session.