Monorail report: We could build it today

Scott N. Miller
October 12, 2004

EAGLE COUNTY - Supporters of a high-speed monorail got good news and bad news Monday.

The good news is that a new, federally-funded study shows that technology exists to build a "magnetic levitation" high-speed transit system between Denver International Airport and Eagle County Regional Airport in just five years or so.


 What's a mag-lev?
Mag-lev is an abbreviation of "magnetic levitation."

The technology uses magnetic fields to create a gap between the car and the rail, meaning the car "floats," suspended between magnetic fields.

Vehicles are propelled by electric motors.

There are no "mag-lev" systems operating in the United States, but systems have been developed in Japan, China and Germany.

The cost of a "mag-lev" transit system between Denver International Airport and Eagle County Regional Airport is estimated at $38 million per mile, not including costs of additional engineering, environmental studies, construction management costs, traffic control costs, or environmental mitigation costs.
The bad news is that the study offers no insight into how to fund such a system, which is estimated to cost about $38 million per mile along the 155-mile route. That per-mile cost estimate adds up to roughly $5.9 billion, not counting additional engineering, right of way acquisition and other costs.

The results of the study were detailed at a press conference Monday in Evergreen. That conference was called by the remnants of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority as a prelude to a full report to the Colorado Legislature when that body convenes in January.

The conference was also an opportunity for advocates to lobby state transportation officials to reopen the door to transit in the continuing process of drafting a "Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement" or PEIS, for the Interstate 70 corridor through the mountains. That study is not yet complete, but early drafts have left out any high-tech transit options, which have been dismissed as too expensive.

"We're hoping that before the PEIS is finalized, they're reconsider the transit options," transit advocate Miller Hudson said.

Hudson said the state put an artificial cap of $4 billion on any future I-70 improvements, in large part to cut out transit options.

But the state's top transportation official said the $4 billion cap is the outer reach of what the state might conceivably be able to afford in the foreseeable future.

"We had to eventually cap costs," Colorado Department of Transportation Director Tom Norton said. "In this case, we set the threshold at $4 billion, even though we only have identified $1 billion in funding."

And, given the state's continuing budget shortages, Norton said there isn't much help on the horizon.

"We're lucky to get enough money now to keep things glued together up there," Norton said.

While the report - which was finished in June - states that its findings "differ somewhat" from the information used to put together the environmental statement, Hudson said there's enough different to reopen the process.

Norton disagreed.

"This is kind of old stuff," Norton said.

While not yet set, the current environmental statement for I-70 points toward more lanes, limiting access to the highway at peak times, bus service and other options.

And, Norton said, the high-tech option isn't completely out of the picture.

"We're going to preserve the corridor," Norton said. "If something comes along in the next 20 or 30 years, maybe we'll be able to do it."

The next couple of decades is when some traffic studies indicate traffic on I-70 may approach gridlock.

Hudson said congestion and possible economic losses at the resorts might encourage state voters to consider funding a high-tech transit system.

State voters in 2001 overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to fund a pilot project to test a high-speed rail system into the mountains. The measure failed in 60 of the state's 63 counties - passing only in Eagle, Summit and Clear Creek counties.

"We found that the farther voters were from I-70, the less likely they were to support it," Hudson said. That, he added, led to the uncomfortable conclusion that voters along the corridor may be asked to foot the lion's share of the bill for a system.

"That's not fair, because the residents there aren't causing the problem, it's Front Range users," Hudson said. If a system is again presented to voters, Hudson said it will require a combination of user pain and education to get it passed.

For now, though, the best way from Denver to Vail is still a car, even if traffic is bad.

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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