Colorado lawmakers on Friday introduced a bill that, if passed, would mark the most significant step the state has taken yet toward funding, building and eventually operating a Front Range passenger train system.
The measure, Senate Bill 238, would draw a new special Front Range passenger rail district running from the New Mexico state line to Wyoming and centered on Interstate 25. The district would be overseen by a 14-member board that would have the power to ask voters to raise sales taxes by up to 8 cents on every $10 purchase to pay for the train.
“Right now is the right time,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill.
Front Range passenger rail has been a complicated, elusive goal for a growing number of Colorado elected leaders and transportation officials, including Gov. Jared Polis. The train is seen as a way to drive down vehicle emissions in Colorado and ease congestion on the state’s packed roadways through its fastest-growing, most populous corridors.
But the main holdup has been the billions of dollars needed for startup funding. Senate Bill 238 creates a clear way for the rail system to raise money, though important details, like where its stops would be, have not been ironed out.
The district would include all of the Broomfield and Denver, as well as all areas of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, El Paso, Huerfano, Jefferson, Larimer, Las Animas, Pueblo, and Weld counties that are located within the territory of a metropolitan planning organization, like the Denver Regional Council of Governments and Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.
In Huerfano, Las Animas, Larimer and Weld counties, areas that aren’t within the territory of a metropolitan planning organization but are within five miles of the I-25 right of way would also be included.
Polling conducted on behalf of the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission in 2019 showed 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. The poll didn’t ask voters about a specific tax increase, however, and Coloradans have been loath to approve new taxes ever since the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was passed in 1992.
The introduction of the bill also comes after Amtrak last week identified a Front Range rail system as a funding priority should it get the $80 billion proposed under President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure plan.
“I see this as a great opportunity for us not only to (show) Amtrak, but to demonstrate to our federal delegation, to demonstrate to Coloradans that we’re serious about this,” Garcia said.
It’s still early in the legislative process, but there are signs Senate Bill 238 has enough momentum to cruise to passage. Three Republicans in the Senate have signed on to the proposal as sponsors, including Kevin Priola, Don Coram and Cleave Simpson, and the governor supports it.
In the state House, one of the two prime sponsors is House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat and the chamber’s second-most powerful lawmaker.
“With the Biden administration proposing an ambitious federal infrastructure plan that includes Colorado’s Front Range Rail proposal, it only makes sense that the state legislature would lay the groundwork that could allow this dream to become a reality,” Esgar said in a written statement Friday.
Esgar sees the Front Range rail as a boon for her part of the state.
“Front Range rail would connect the most populous parts of our state, create jobs and boost southern Colorado’s economy,” she said. “Pueblo, long known for forging the strongest, most reliable rail tracks in the world, has been fighting for this critical line for decades. We’re not there yet, but I’m excited by all the possibilities that Front Range Rail could bring.”
The district’s board would have to be appointed by April 1, 2022. The governor would pick six of the members, while seven others would be chosen by metropolitan planning organizations, like the Denver Regional Council of Governments. The Colorado Department of Transportation would appoint the 14th member of the board.
BNSF and Union Pacific, Colorado’s two major freight rail carriers, and Amtrak would also be able to each appoint a nonvoting member of the board.
The Regional Transportation District’s board could appoint one nonvoting member.
Finally, the bill proposes giving the governors of New Mexico and Wyoming the ability to each appoint one nonvoting member of the board.
While RTD won’t have a vote in how the district is run, Senate Bill 238 would direct the new board overseeing the Front Range passenger rail district to collaborate with the other tax-collecting transit agency and “ensure interconnectivity with any passenger rail system” operated by RTD.
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RTD Board member Lynn Guissinger, who represents Boulder and the surrounding area, said her first reading of the bill makes her optimistic rather than defensive. She noted the language talks about potentially sharing capital costs for a long-awaited northwest commuter line to Boulder and Longmont, which RTD began with the 6-mile stretch of the B Line to Westminster that opened in 2016.
“We’ve certainly had a lot of pressure on the B Line, that’s fair to say,” Guissinger said of the public criticism. “If this is going to happen, this to me is a window of opportunity, and I would hope all the parties would be pulling together to work with our federal delegation to see if we can make something happen.”
Colorado lawmakers who support the creation of a Front Range passenger rail system have been working on forming a special district for years, but last year they ran into opposition from then-House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat.
Becker was opposed to the proposal mainly because RTD has so far failed to deliver on its promise 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.
RTD built one of the largest metro rail networks in the nation beginning in the 1990s, and won a four-tenths of a penny sales tax vote to speed up construction under the FasTracks moniker in 2004. Construction has continued, with RTD opening lines and stations through last year. But critics said RTD mismanaged costs and planning. RTD supporters note that the 2008 and 2020 recessions cost more than $1 billion in projected sales tax revenue.
Residents and civic leaders north and west of downtown Denver have attacked RTD for years for failing to extend rail service on to Boulder and Longmont, while they paid sales taxes all along to support the rest of FasTracks. Polis is among those critics.
RTD does not have capital savings in its coffers to finish construction of more lines for decades. At a board meeting last week, northwest rail supporters urged RTD to move forward on new studies on limited, rush-hour only service to the northwest.
Any new tax to pay for a Front Range passenger rail system would apparently come on top of the sales taxes already being collected by RTD, meaning some may have to pay into multiple transportation districts.
Becker also pointed out last year that 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.
Becker is no longer in the legislature after reaching her four-term limit.
Democratic lawmakers this year are also separately working on legislation that would impose fees for road users, including extra costs for purchasing gas and diesel fuel and on deliveries, to generate billions of dollars for road projects across the state.
Senate Bill 238 has yet to be scheduled for its first committee hearing.
Colorado Sun staff writer Michael Booth contributed to this report.