DENVER — Efforts to create a governing body that could hasten the return of intercity intrastate passenger trains to eastern Colorado is now past a crucial milestone.
That happened April 18, when the Colorado House of Representatives approved a bill that creates the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. That commission could foster connections between LaJunta, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the legislation, which passed by a vote of 40 to 25 and had already cleared the Colorado Senate on a 24 to 11 vote.
The new law would make it possible to expand the role and territorial responsibility for the Southwest Chief Commission, whose authority had been set to expire on June 30. That group, led by the efforts of Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, represented Colorado along with advocates from Kansas and New Mexico in obtaining almost $50 million in federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants for rail and tie rehabilitation along the Southwest Chief’s route.
“What is significant,” Colorado Rail Passenger Association president James Souby tells Trains News Wire, “is that the bill received support from both Republican and Democratic legislators and passed by a wide margin in both houses. This policy declaration by the state will be critically important to developing rail service for Coloradans.”
Souby says the next step after the governor’s signature is to fill 11 voting commissioner slots, up from the nine who comprise the Southwest Chief Commission.
The statute calls for the governor to appoint two rail advocates, two railroad representatives (presumably from Union Pacific and BNSF Railway), and a resident from one of five southern Colorado counties.
Five other representatives would be nominated from the four Front Range councils of governments and one Front Range metropolitan planning organization. These groups of mayors, city council members, and transportation planners include the South Central (Trinidad area), Pikes Peak (Colorado Springs area) and Denver Councils. The North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization representing northern counties will also select a representative. A Denver Regional Transportation District representative would also join the new commission, while the Colorado Department of Transportation and Amtrak are each to be represented by a non-voting member.
Restoring scheduled passenger service on tracks with less capacity and more freight traffic since the Santa Fe ended its Denver-La Junta connection with Amtrak’s 1971 debut will require infrastructure improvement studies, a funding source, and a sponsoring operating authority. The Southwest Chief Commission’s immediate goal is to bring Chief service to Pueblo from LaJunta and investigate the possibility that the Chicago-Los Angeles overnighter could eventually be rerouted over a now-unsignaled former Colorado and Southern line to Trinidad, Colo., via Walsenburg.
“Imagine getting on a train in Pueblo on the way to a Rockies or Broncos game in Denver and just smoothly zooming by all the congested cars stuck on congested Interstates,” Pace says in a statement. “This bill’s passage puts us one step closer to that dream.”