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Somebody has to go first. For the low-stakes gamble of traffic roundabouts, it was Vail. When town officials pulled the trigger, skeptics predicted mayhem. But the first convergence of snow and tourists in December 1995 testified to a home run. That success rippled across the West and beyond.
In the much bigger gamble of true high-speed rail, California may be first in the United States. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that authorizes California to begin selling $2.6 billion in bonds to qualify for $3.2 billion in federal funding. The pool of money will finance the first 130-mile segment of a planned 432-mile network linking Southern California with San Francisco and Sacramento and major cities between.
Among Colorado officials heartened by California's action is Forrest Whitman, a commissioner in Gilpin County. If successful, California's action will give concreteness to similar ambitions in Colorado, he believes. "We see California doing it, and then we can imagine the Colorado Department of Transportation's plan for rail," says Whitman.
Colorado began talking about high-speed rail in the late 1990s. Citizen activists along Interstate 70 insisted upon a better solution to weekend congestion than hacking additional lanes of pavement from the towns, mountains and creeks of Clear Creek County. They vaguely called for a monorail. Planners more clinically call it an automated guideway system.
This talk in Colorado has caused many eyes to roll. "Flying saucers," one ski industry representative called it. In 2002, then-Gov. Bill Owens dismissed it as a "Disneyland ride." Others favor rail, but propose using the winding, routes of a century ago. And go back to manual typewriters?
Conservatives, especially, are distrustful.National Review Onlinebrims with fulminations that California's plans are among the world's great hoaxes. Their most interesting argument is that transportation by car can be restored more rapidly than a mass transit line in the wake of a catastrophe like an earthquake. True, perhaps, but that also sounds like an argument against interstate highways.
Since 2006, Colorado has studied higher-speed rail with greater respect. A consortium of local governments called the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority oversaw a $2 million study that found synergy for perpendicular rail routes along I-70 and I-25 if also perhaps a discouraging price tag of more than $20 billion.
Two studies now underway seek to refine ridership, costs, and technology while coming to better grips with routes. Commissioned by the Colorado Department of Transportation at a cost of $4.3 million, they contemplate links between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and Denver westward to either Summit County or the Eagle Valley. David Krutsinger, the project manager, has started meeting with local officials in these two corridors to talk about station sites. It would seem to be the cart before the horse, but he explains that development rights related to stations can provide 20 percent of project costs, possibly more.
Technology companies like Bombardier have been invited to submit proposals. We will likely hear proposals for mag-lev, an old technology that has been put into commercial application in just the last decade in China.
The I-70 corridor looks to be a challenge. It has less steady traffic and more daunting challenges of weather and topography. However, tunneling costs have dropped by two-thirds.
What is envisioned for the future in no way resembles the ski train to Winter Park or the Amtrak excursion to Glenwood Springs, both of them wonderful journeys at slow speeds.
Major transportation systems often take great time, involve complex compromises, and require broad support. President Franklin Roosevelt had the basic plans for an interstate highway system on his desk, but World War II got in the way. It took until 1992, when I-70 through Glenwood Canyon was dedicated, to execute this national vision.
Connected in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, the nation's first transcontinental line was the result of a strategic consideration. As outlined by H.W. Brands in his book "American Colossus," President Abraham Lincoln, himself a former railroad lawyer, saw the need for a direct rail connection to California to ensure the new state, with its riches of gold, did not stray to the Confederate side. Chinese and Irish laborers toiled for miserly wages, and Leland Stanford and the other railroad titans became incredibly rich, thanks also generous grants of cash and land that continue to define the Western landscape.
Colorado's east-west railroad freight corridor also took time. The single most important component of that corridor is the Moffat Tunnel, between Winter Park and Rollinsville, where Whitman, the Gilpin County commissioner, lives. The tunnel was built essentially as a public-private partnership. Formation of the six-county taxing district, from Denver to Craig, was blocked for many years by interests in central Colorado, who wanted to remain the primary portal to the mountains and Western Slope. A devastating flood in Pueblo provoked the compromise that yielded the enabling legislation for northern Colorado.
High-speed rail is a different beast from 19th century railroads or 20th century highways because we have so little direct experience. But high-speed is not novel outside the United States. I rode on the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka in 1973, when Japan was still recovering from World War II. China has high-speed rail, and so do Spain and France.
A study by America 2050, a mass transit advocacy group focused on the 11 "megaregions" it has identified in the United States, sees the need for large, dense urban populations to make high-speed rail work. California, the East Coast, and Florida fit the bill. So do Dallas and Houston, which are four hours apart by car. That's long enough to be tiring, but the flight it just short enough to make passengers question whether it's worth the hassle, noted a recent article in Governing magazine.
Bigger is better for high-speed rail, said Petra Todorovich, America 2050's executive director, speaking at a conference in Denver in 2010. Phoenix, with a metropolitan area of 3.5 million, is the largest city in the intermountain West, followed by metro Denver's 2.8 million. By this measure, the West falls short.
Demographers, however, expect the Southwestern states to continue their torrid growth of recent decades. By 2035, according to these projections, Arizona's population will expand by 5.6 million people, Nevada's by 2.3 million, and Colorado by 1.5 million. Utah's will grow 1.25 million. Most growth will occur in or near metro areas.
The Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, a consortium of metro-area planning groups from Denver to Phoenix to Reno, envisions a first link from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and then perhaps connections to Phoenix. The group will hold its annual conference in Denver in late October.
Reviewing the California decision, journalist Patt Morrison argued the case for government partnership in a major new technology.
"High-speed rail could wind up as a techno-evolutionary dead end, or it could be a model for the nation, one for which future Californians will bless us. That's why government undertakes big, important, useful things: because no one else can, or will," she wrote ina July article in the Los Angeles Times.
Morrison concedes valid reasons to oppose high-speed rail, but asserts that "none of those reasons should be a timidity of ambition or narrowness of vision."
I was born in Colorado when it had 1 million people. We have now pushed above 5 million. Demographers see 8 million in what will conceivably be my lifetime. My "John Denver Go Home" bumper sticker from the 1970s never deterred anybody from moving here. The cornfields, alas, will likely soon be gone from along the Front Range. We may not want this, but we have little choice. We're part of a global population headed toward 9 billion. Part of these inevitable changes will be more dense urbanization, both along the Front Range and in the mountain valleys.
High-speed rail could be a techno-evolutionary dead end. Evolution of car technology that reduces inefficient spacing needs may instead triumph. But we should be looking forward, not backward. I voted for light rail for metro Denver in 2004, because I could imagine myself using it. I could similarly see myself taking a high-speed train to Vail or Fort Collins. Watching what's happening in California makes me think I just might get a chance.
This article first appeared on www.denverpost.com
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