Officials consider additional mass transit options

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Anyone who has visited Disney World and ridden to the theme park on a lightrail system knows the thrill of traveling at fast speed and reaching a destination in a fraction of the time it takes to drive there. The same is true for anyone who has hopped on Denver’s new lightrail system in the southeast corridor as it travels along Sante Fe Avenue. Because of Denver’s rapid growth, officials are now talking about adding another lightrail system in the northwest section of that city.

Colorado Springs officials are also considering options to address congestion and transportation. The public works department is hosting a series of public-input meetings geared toward reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, providing reliable and timely transportation, and decreasing travel time for workers and shoppers.

The department is presently conducting two studies. The Downtown Transit Station Needs Assessment study will help public works determine the best locations for new transit stations, how many stations to build, and how to design them.

Sherre Ritenour, transit services unit manager for the city, said the main goal is to make the existing hub more user-friendly.. Greyhound bus service is a possibility, as is a trolley stop. Bus shelters would be brighter and the possibility of a light-rail system could be incorporated at a later date. The new center might also have a coffee bar, clock tower, skylights or canopies and an information booth, Ritenour said. The idea behind the design and development of a new hub would be to entice choice riders – those who aren’t reliant on public transportation by virtue of need — to take advantage of public transportation, thus reducing congestion and air pollution.

The hubs would probably be located near areas with high traffic or high levels of activity, such as the proposed Confluence Park. Ritenour expects to have a draft of the plan in about six months – after the Comprehensive Plan, public input, and the 2025 Long-Range Transit Plan are closer to completion.

The 2025 Long-Range Transit Plan – addresses congestion mitigation in addition to the 2020 plan’s assessment of how best to serve people presently using the bus system, said transit planner Michael Felschow. The 2025 plan closely examines the community’s future transportation needs, land use, environmental needs and expected increases in population.

The long-range study will collect demographics, employment trends, travel patterns and public input, allowing the public works department to map out and effectively present options for faster travel and increased quality of life for residents.

The transit system concept that the public works department has developed is based on three tiers. The first tier is the collector system, in which riders are collected at various stops. Its purpose is to move riders to local or regional centers of activity. The existing hub-and-spoke system would be one example. Another would be the proposed grid system.

The second tier includes express service, while the third tier involves mass transportation, such as bus rapid transit, lightrail, monorail or commuter rail.

“The whole thing works together,” said Felschow.

Felschow believes that bus rapid transit – perhaps in the form of a tram — would be the best choice in the third tier because of its flexibility and cost. Since it would be separated from regular flow of traffic, it could travel faster than automobiles and would stop only at multimodal stations. Bus rapid transit, runs on its own guideway that can be used as a hike-and-bike trail when not in use – probably during off-peak hours and weekends, he said. It runs on wheels within concrete rails and with bumper tires on the sides for guidance and protection. It can easily run on city streets as well. The cost to build the tram is between $4 million and $10 million per mile of track.

The city presently procures $4 million from the federal government for every $1 million the city can match for capital expenditures — for the first two tiers only. Operating expenditures are paid by the city and collected fares. Adding a second tier – increasing the level of service in the current system – would not render the city eligible for any additional monies.

However, if the third tier were added, the city could apply for part of a $4 billion federal pot. The amount received would depend on the project as well as availability of funds, which fluctuates as other cities apply for funding.

Federal funding paid for 80 percent ($120 million) of the $177 million lightrail system in Denver. RTD, Denver’s bus system, added $39 million to the coffer while $9 million came from the Colorado Department of Transportation and $9 million from the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

Lightrail construction costs between $20 million and $50 million for one mile of track. Nationally, it costs about $180 per hour to operate, said Felschow. The national average to operate a standard bus system is about $75 per hour. Springs Transit operates its system on $50 per hour, he added.

“Our system is as efficient as we can get it for the money we’ve got,” he said.

To operate buses in a grid system, Colorado Springs will need $4 million a year on top of the $6.5 million already spent. No operating dollars have been identified for a long-range grid system yet, said Ritenour. SCIP 01, the referendum that will be on the April 3 ballot, is a request for $4.9 million from taxpayers to fund the purchase of 22 new express buses, along with other community improvement projects.

Felschow admits the process of hammering down details will take time. By taking the list of choices to the community through public input meetings, he said the city hopes to develop more concrete plans with financing options. Input meetings will continue in April with a draft of the plan ready for presentation to the City Council by May or June.

Both studies are in their infancy stages, said Ritenour. The downtown needs-assessment study won’t be complete until September and the 2025 plan won’t be ready until November.

The plans’ aim is to “figure out what our goal is and, as we grow, we grow to meet the needs of the community,” said Ritenour.