Colorado Is Creating A Special Tax District To Fund Front Range Rail Dreams
Colorado took one of its most concrete steps toward building a regional passenger rail line on Wednesday after Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill creating a powerful government body charged with carrying out the project.
The bill, SB21-238, doesn’t put any money toward the effort. Instead, it establishes the Front Range Passenger Rail District, an independent entity with the herculean task of “planning, designing, developing, financing, constructing, operating and maintaining” a passenger rail system through the region.
Speaking at a 130-year-old train station in Pueblo, Polis said he was “thrilled” to sign the bill and begin delivering on his administration’s promise to expand rail service in the state.
“Railways are vital to creating onward and upward economic mobility,” Polis said. “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.”
The district’s geographic boundary includes wide swaths of Larimer and Weld counties in Northern Colorado and extends south to the New Mexico border. Other communities in the group are Broomfield, Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, El Paso, Huerfano, Jefferson, Las Animas and Pueblo counties.
Its board members will have the power to levy new taxes — if voters approve them. They can also enter into public-private partnerships and hire employees.
Members will include governor-appointed transit experts, as well as a representative from the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation District (RTD).
Rail advocates say the project is needed because the Front Range is expected to continue growing in the coming decades, putting even more pressure on already traffic-clogged interstates. Recent estimates predict the region’s population is expected to jump 35% by 2045.
Without rail and other transit options, Interstate 25 could see “vehicle travel times doubling in the next 20 years,” according to CDOT models.
“This is a monumental step forward,” said Jim Souby, chair of the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, which has overseen preliminary rail planning in the state for several years. “We finally have within sight solving one of Colorado's most critical travel and economic barriers.”
Progress so far has been slow going. Other than the new taxing district, few details about Front Range rail have been finalized.
The current rail commission, which the bill retires, selected a preferred route this spring. Based on ridership modeling and existing train routes, members indicated a path through Longmont and Boulder would be ideal. But the decision isn’t binding.
Cost is another variable. The price tag will likely be in the billions of dollars. Planners say funding could come from a variety of places, including federal, state, local or private sources.
The Biden administration could give a boost to the project. It recently included the Front Range corridor on its wish list of Amtrak rail system expansion projects, which could mean more funding opportunities. But that’s only if Congress signs on.
Even though planning is still in the early stages, bill sponsors and local transportation leaders labeled Polis’ signing on Wednesday as a major step forward.
“The new law will create a framework that ensures Colorado will be prepared to efficiently take advantage of federal transportation dollars,” said Democratic State Rep. Daneya Esgar, who sponsored SB21-238. “Given President Biden’s love for passenger rail and the progress of bipartisan infrastructure negotiations in Washington, this could not come at a better time.”
It’s unclear if or when the new district could send a tax hike ballot question to Colorado voters. That decision would likely take years, said Becky Karasko, transportation planning director for the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization. Karasko also serves on the current rail commission.
“Having a new transportation option, should this see itself through, would be very helpful,” Karasko said. “But there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done between now and then.”
The rail commission plans to continue studying rail development and making transition plans through early next year. The new rail district’s first meeting will take its place by May 2022, according to the legislation.