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  • Dylan Anderson

Passenger rail from Denver to Steamboat Springs will need to be more than a ski train

CDOT Director says a train connecting the Mile-High City to Ski Town, USA would cost “hundreds of millions,” on par with significant highway projects across Colorado.

When officials from the Yampa Valley joined Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on the ski train to Winter Park a few weeks ago, there was strong optimism that the line could one day extend to Steamboat Springs.

Using existing railroads, the Steamboat-bound train would continue from Winter Park, pass by Granby and Kremmling before making its way over, around and through rough terrain in South Routt County. From there, it makes the trip north toward Steamboat, Hayden and Craig.

Once a dream thought to be decades away at best, the prospects for passenger rail to the Yampa Valley are as high as they have been since local rail service ended in 1968.  The idea has support locally and in Denver, the federal government has billions to hand out for rail projects and Union Pacific — who owns the rail lines — has been described as enthusiastic about the idea.

But the rail line still comes with the hurdle that officials have known was going to be there all along — the cost.

Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation likened the cost of the rail line to that of a significant highway project while in Steamboat Springs on Monday. Lew specifically mentioned the agency’s ongoing work on I-70 as it traverses over Floyd Hill — a $700 million endeavor.

Still, those kinds of numbers make it possible, Lew said.

“Our initial rough cut of costs was hundreds of millions, not billions,” Lew told a joint meeting of the Routt County Commissioners and Steamboat Springs City Council on Monday. “It’s a lot of money, but it also means that it’s in the realm that is achievable.”

With a price tag that high and the likelihood of hefty operating costs, Lew said a rail project needs to be considered as something far bigger than a simple ski train. Funding for a Rail Service Development Plan also includes dollars to study the state busing system — information that could be used to see how rail and busing can complement each other to build out a more robust network.

The train will also likely need several new stations. As locals hope for platforms throughout the Yampa Valley allowing the passenger rail to double as a commuter rail, Lew said CDOT is also toying with the idea of a large suburban train station in Arvada.

“It is really important that this be a statewide project,” Lew said in an interview with the Yampa Valley Bugle after the meeting. “It can get people from Denver to the mountains, it can help to create that connection between Steamboat, Craig and Hayden.”

Work on the Service Development Plan is expected to begin later this year, once CDOT hires a project manager. This study was funded by $5 million allocated by the Transportation Commission back in October. A timeline shared Monday estimates the study could be complete by January 2025.

This plan is a requirement to obtain federal funding, but Lew said it also will answer a lot of important questions about the frequency of the train, public-private partnerships that may be available to operate the line, and what upgrades will be needed along the corridor to accommodate a passenger train. It may also broach what kinds of locomotives can use the spur to Steamboat, as the winding section after the line enters Routt County includes tight curves and narrow tunnels while gaining elevation quickly.

“Almost every project starts with a study that articulates the concept in enough detail that you can make the case for funding,” Lew said. “I think that this study is a tremendously important step in making the project real. It doesn’t get it all the way there on its own, but it does give it the leg up and the ability to start the race.”

Paired with the rail study is a review of the state’s busing lines, assessing what the future of those look like and how they could be integrated into a rail network.

“Something that makes rail work in other countries is that you don’t have to think too hard to get a bus connection,” Lew said. “If we can start to think about the two complementing one another that way it gives us the ability to really, really increase the utility by orders of magnitude.”

Lew championed elected officials in the room, representatives with Alterra Mountain Company (Steamboat Resort’s Owner) and numerous small businesses up and down the valley for pulling together people passionate about passenger rail. The resort helped pay for additional study of passenger rail last year as a supplement to ongoing work to form a Regional Transportation Authority. 

“We get ideas all the time. It is rare that we get a coalition that is so broad and so passionate and so well organized that it really seems in the realm of the possible,” Lew said.

The momentum for a train to Steamboat is also due to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, which the White House says is “the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak.” The law includes $66 billion for passenger rail projects across the country.

“Right at this moment in time there are billions of dollars going into rail somewhere,” Lew said. “Shouldn’t we make the argument that they should be here and not Texas?”

Top Photo Caption: Snow covers the Union Pacific-owned railroad near Steamboat Springs. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


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