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A railroad line stretches to the horizon just outside of Wray on May 16th, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado on Wednesday took its most significant step yet toward building a Front Range passenger train system as Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill creating a special taxation district for the proposed rail line.

Senate Bill 238 also forms a board tasked with getting the new train on track. The 17-member panel, six of whom will be appointed by the governor, will have the ability to enact a new sales tax of up to 8 cents on every $10 purchase to pay for the train. 

“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,” said Polis, who signed the measure at the Pueblo Union Depot, a former passenger rail station.

The governor said the train will “derail this economic crisis” and help Colorado “recover faster.”

Front Range passenger rail has been a lofty, yearslong goal for Polis and others. But a recent financial commitment to the project by Amtrak, paired with Democrats’ emphasis on ways to drive down vehicle emissions and eliminate traffic, has brought the pie-in-the-sky idea into the realm of reality. 

Funding has been the main hurdle for the proposal, and Senate Bill 238 gets the project chugging toward the billions of dollars needed in startup costs. A congressional infrastructure plan, should it pass, could also infuse money needed for the train.

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

“We do not have the money right now,” said state Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat who was a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 238. “Just because 238 is passing doesn’t mean that Front Range rail is coming.”

But Gray said 238 opens the door to federal partnerships that can make the funding mechanisms possible. 

The Front Range train district’s board will have to be appointed by April 1, 2022.

BNSF and Union Pacific, Colorado’s two major freight rail carriers, and Amtrak can each appoint a nonvoting member of the board.The Regional Transportation District’s board can appoint one nonvoting member, too, as can the Interstate 70 Coalition.

The taxation district runs along Interstate 25 from Wyoming to New Mexico, and includes all of Denver, Jefferson, Broomfield and Douglas counties and parts of Larimer, Weld, Boulder, Adams, Arapahoe, El Paso, Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

The narrowly drawn district appears aimed at including areas of the state that are more friendly to tax increases. 

A map of where the Front Range passenger rail taxation district will be. (Handout)

The tax question can be sent to voters only after the board has published a proposed service development and operation plan, including a detailed financing arrangement. The board must also first adopt a resolution that it has made every reasonable effort to secure federal funding for the project. 

The tax would be in addition to existing transportation taxes paid by people in the Front Range passenger rail district, such as those levied by the Regional Transportation District. 

Some Boulder County residents have been incensed by the idea of the Front Range train proposal moving forward before they get the Denver-Longmont train promised by RTD that has been long delayed by the agency because of a lack of funding. 

Senate Bill 238 makes possible, and the existing Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission has called for, the Front Range train route to travel along the route that RTD was planning for its commuter train. The idea is that the two projects can be combined, allowing transportation officials to hit two trains with one stone.

“This is going to transform Colorado,” said Sal Pace, a former state lawmaker and Pueblo County commissioner who has been one of the most vocal proponents of the Front Range rail proposal. 

The Colorado House voted 40-25 to pass Senate Bill 238. The measure cleared the Senate by a 25-9 vote.

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 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...