Colo. has never had a regional rail plan. Now it will

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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train heads north just west of downtown Colorado Springs.  The state is paying $800,000 to get a handle on what’s happening with freight and passenger railways.

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train heads north just west of downtown Colorado Springs. The state is paying $800,000 to get a handle on what’s happening with freight and passenger railways.

In a time of lean state budgets, the Colorado Department of Transportation has launched an $800,000 study of the state’s railroads and created a new department to deal with railway and other transportation issues.

It’s a move that could lay the groundwork for long-talked-about plans for high-speed trains from Pueblo through Colorado Springs to Fort Collins.

And it’s not as extravagant as it seems, administration officials said. The Division of Transit and Rail was created from FASTER funds, money generated from higher vehicle registration fees in 2009. And half the money for the yearlong study comes from the feds.

Department officials say both the study and the new department are necessary to get more money from Washington for railway programs and to ease traffic concerns for both freight and passenger trains.

The state has never had a regional plan for passenger or freight trains. It doesn’t know how many trains come into or out of Colorado, or what they’re carrying. It doesn’t even really have an accurate count of the number of tourist trains, like the Cog Railroad, that operate in the state, and it’s not clear on when they operate.

The state of Colorado leaves much of the business and the scheduling of the trains up to the two railroads that own the vast majority of rail lines here, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

But that’s all going to change. The $800,000 study was awarded to international consultant Parsons Brinkerhoff, which has a year to create a detailed plan about the state’s railway functions and its future needs. Once it’s approved at the state level, the Federal Railroad Administration must also approve it.

“The federal government wants all states to have a rail plan,” said Tammy Lang, CDOT project manager. “The study will look at routes in the state, what’s carried on them. It’s an important first step.”

It’s an important step because freight and passenger trains are expected to double in the next 20 years, said Mehdi Bazair, a CDOT rail project manager. Higher traffic could mean moving coal trains or other freight to different lines. It’s needed because the state wants to increase passenger rail in the form of high-speed trains, creating new lines from Pueblo through Colorado Springs to Fort Collins.

“Part of the federal guidelines to do that right now is that we need a regional plan,” Bazair said. “We’ll have that in a year and then we can proceed.”

Outside of tourist routes, passenger trains in Colorado are currently limited to Amtrak, but that could change in the future. Colorado needs to be ready, Bazair said.

The study will also examine future needs and recommend financing, as well as giving an accurate picture of the economic and environmental issues that surround changing the rail lines. By January 2012, the picture will be complete.

And that’s where Mark Imhoff’s new division takes up the issue. Imhoff now heads the Division of Transit and Rail, which will implement the regional plan over time. Right now, CDOT has a plan that goes through 2035, but Imhoff is working on one that will take it through 2040.

“For the first time, we can implement the plan,” he said. “We’re setting the stage for a real integrated, inter-modal plan. We’ll have statewide transit working together — roads, bridges, bike paths, rails, planes.”

The federal government already funnels money to transit programs like the Mountain Metro bus service in Colorado Springs, he said. His division will make it possible to extend those programs to trains, using $15 million in FASTER grants.

“It elevates a successful program,” he said, “at least a little bit. It’s a little step toward statewide rail.”

Beyond the regional freight and passenger study, the state is looking to award a $1 million regional interconnectivity study that will look at passenger rail in the Front Range, from Pueblo to Fort Collins and from Denver to Eagle.

“The study will look at what’s the best passenger rail solution and how it will best integrated with the RTD (Regional Transportation District) Fast-Tracks rail system in Denver,” Imhoff said. “We’ve done one study; this one is taking a more detailed look at the two corridors. It propels the state rail plan toward what we need to be doing, what we should be doing.”

Until FASTER passed, the state hadn’t been able to help pay for intercity transit programs. Right now, there is only the FREX system, a bus that takes passengers from the Springs to Denver. It’s paid for by the city of Colorado Springs.

“Now, we can not only help with FREX, but we can help design and create a passenger rail program,” Imhoff said.

The idea of passenger rail has gained traction under the Obama administration, which wants to spend $53 billion over six years for upgrades and additions. CDOT wants some of that money to connect the Front Range to the mountain towns.

“This is the first time in 35 years I’ve heard a president even mention transportation in a State of the Union speech,” Imhoff said. “The nation is making progress and we’re going to make progress to advance the transit system.”