'Greenport' plan could be part of regional mountain rail network connecting Aspen, Vail, Steamboat
April 7, 2010 —
Some backers of intercity passenger rail in Colorado think that instead of a $21 billion high-speed system along the I-70 and I-25 corridors a slower-speed test rail line using existing tracks should first be built in the mountains.
Of course, it would be hard to really call it “intercity” at that point, but such a rail line could serve to showcase the passenger-rail possibilities and build taxpayer support for true high-speed rail between the state’s major cities in the future.
A Beaver Creek resident and former IBM executive is seeking more than $1 million in seed money to go after state and federal grants in order to lease the dormant Union Pacific rail lines in Eagle County. Vince Cook’s “Greenport” project is a $650 million concept to connect seven green-built workforce housing villages between Dotsero, Minturn and possibly Leadville.
Such a rail line would mostly run along I-70 from basically the east end of Glenwood Canyon through the Eagle County Regional Airport – one of the busiest on the Western Slope – past the ski resorts of Beaver Creek and Vail to the former mining and railroad towns that have morphed into bedroom communities for workers at the high-end resorts.
There’s a disconnect in mountain towns between workforce housing people can afford and the price of real estate in the resort destinations where most of the jobs are. Workers have been forced farther and farther out, putting pressure on local roads and public transportation.
“My approach was (rail) would make it more complex but more powerful,” Cook told the Vail Daily, adding that he feels uniquely qualified to work with railroad and government officials because of his business background. “I think I know what pew of the church I need to sit in for this.”
Harry Dale of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, an intergovernmental group that last month completed a $1.5 million high-speed rail feasibility study for I-70 and I-25, said using existing freight rail lines is highly problematic because of the configuration of tracks, liability issues and federal rules governing the types of passenger trains that can share freight rail tracks.
Still, he’s heard talk of an Eagle County rail line, where he says light-weight, composite European passenger trains could run on tracks modified to 110 mph capacity, which means they would actually then be able to reach speeds of up to 60 mph. Such a system could then conceivably connect to other resort communities with similar housing and transportation issues.
“If you could make Eagle County Airport your hub, then you could do some 110 diesel, and in fact in our study we do look at extensions to Steamboat, extensions to Aspen and extensions to Glenwood Springs – just improving those tracks and running those high-tech diesel trains,” Dale said.
Such a transit system would be an obvious tourism draw, but the emphasis of the Greenport project is transporting and housing resort workers. Other rail proponents see a 2022 Colorado Winter Olympic bid as the best way to build either a mountain rail system or dedicated high-speed rail line along I-70 between Denver and the resorts.
Dale said the most popular and lucrative section of high-speed rail identified in the RMRA’s study is a $9 billion stretch between Denver International Airport and Summit County, home to four ski areas east of Eagle County that are highly popular with Front Range day skiers.
Union Pacific's Tennessee Pass rail line from Pueblo, which runs up through Leadville and over Battle Mountain Pass into the Eagle River Valley, has been dormant since the 1990s. It connects at Dotsero - some 50 miles west of Vail on I-70 - to a northern line that continues to the west through Glenwood Canyon and to the northeast along the Colorado River to Kremmling.
The northern line, still very much active, then runs from Kremmling southeast through the Moffat Tunnel at Winter Park and down into Denver. That's the site of the state's only true ski train, which was salvaged after nearly being scrapped this season, but it's a long an arduous ride through more than 30 tunnels.
Active tracks also run north toward Steamboat Springs at times paralleling Highway 131, and a line that used to run along Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs to Aspen was torn up and replaced by a recreation path several years ago, although the right-of-way was maintained for future transit opportunities.
It's not hard to envision a regional rail network connecting the major ski and mountain resort communities of Aspen, Glenwood, Avon, Vail, Steamboat and Winter Park. And a line even runs out of Leadville up toward Climax mine, where it could be extended into Summit County.
Yes, resort workers would likely be regular riders on such a system, easing traffic congestion, parking problems and environmental impacts. But the benefit to tourists and economic advantages accruing to Colorado would also be enormous.
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