A monorail for the mountains?

Colorado considers a space-age alternative to asphalt

 

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. - Interstate 70 was once Denver's portal to paradise, four fast-moving lanes that plunged into the heart of the Colorado Rockies and beyond to the Utah deserts. These days, though, it is often a clogged artery, sometimes dragging 90-minute drives into hellish all-afternoon affairs.

It might get worse. Colorado's growth spree - it was the nation's third-fastest-growing state during the '90s - is expected to continue. Engineers predict that within 20 years, this mountain freeway will have city-style stop-and-go traffic, even on weekdays. Highway department officials are considering new lanes that would push the freeway farther into Colorado's fragile high country.

A coalition of five county governments along the I-70 corridor between Denver and Glenwood Springs have an alternate vision. They say a high-speed monorail could hurtle over the clogged traffic on an elevated track, carrying trainloads of visitors between Denver International Airport and a regional airport serving Vail and Aspen in well under an hour and a half. Their group, the Colorado Intermountain Guideway Authority, has spent almost four years and nearly $3 million in federal and local tax dollars researching the idea.

In November, the monorail supporters will ask Colorado voters to forgo $18 per person in tax refunds to pay for another three years of testing and engineering. If the $50 million of research and development pans out, backers hope the state will eventually approve a 163-mile-long monorail. The estimated cost, $25 million per mile, is only slightly more than adding two lanes to the same stretch of highway.

Colorado voters have never agreed to forgo this much money for a public project, and most of the state's political leaders are balking at the projected $4 billion price tag. Many remember how Denver International Airport became a national joke in the mid-'90s, when the cutting-edge baggage-handling system sliced open suitcases and construction costs ballooned from $1.5 billion to $4 billion (HCN, 1/23/95: The West sings the Denver airport blues). Last year, Gov. Bill Owens dismissed the monorail as a "Disneyland ride."

And some critics say a high-speed, high-elevation monorail just isn't possible. "This is basically a consultants' welfare project," says Jon Caldara of Colorado's Independence Institute, a free-market think tank. "If you're going to have a study about a monorail that goes 125 miles per hour over the Continental Divide, you might as well be having a study of Star Trek energizers or rocket packs."

Simple as dirt

The proposed monorail route would take trains above timberline, across two passes, and up extended grades of 7 percent, steeper than conventional trains can master. Weather is sometimes so severe that one winter several years ago the highway was closed more than 40 times.

Monorail boosters say linear-induction motors could push the trains over the Rockies. Patented in 1904, the motors are used in elevators and roller coasters and even a one-mile subway that connects the U.S. Capitol with the Senate Office Building. However, in mass transit, it has only been used in the Sky Train's 40-mile network at Vancouver, British Columbia. Never has it been used for high speeds or in mountainous settings.

Engineers for the Star Wars program at Albuquerque's Sandia National Laboratories have recently developed a more powerful linear-induction motor, winning more than $2 million from the federal government for future research. The new motor uses "existing technology modified in ways that have never been done before," says Jack Stauffer, a retired mechanical engineer. The essential idea behind the motor, he adds, is "almost as simple as dirt to me."

Vail Resorts, which operates four ski resorts along the I-70 corridor and is closely aligned with a fifth, has remained publicly neutral on the proposal. Privately, executives remain leery of the unproven technology; they fear Vail would be railroaded into paying for the monorail while the federal government still builds highways for free. Intrawest, which operates Copper Mountain, is the only resort company to publicly endorse the proposal, and the only one to provide funding.

And not all local governments think the plan is practical. Jefferson County, immediately west of Denver, has refused to give money to the project, and Denver itself recently withdrew financial support in favor of a local mass-transit system.

That doesn't mean I-70 is a popular alternative. Many residents of the interstate corridor have become disenchanted with the highway. It's a major obstacle to wildlife, and sand from the highway has been choking some streams and destroying fisheries. Highway noise has also become a focus, spurring construction of sand berms in some areas.

But some locals fear that the monorail might accelerate existing social and economic problems in the high country. If the economically elite could commute to Denver, the booming ski towns along I-70 would surely witness a spurt in population and affluence - exacerbating the already-severe housing shortage in the area.

Miller Hudson, director of the non-governmental Colorado Alliance for Rapid Transit Solutions, rejects that argument as head-in-the-sand thinking. Population growth in Denver along the corridor will increase even if no monorail is built, he says, and as traffic worsens people will call for solutions. If the wrinkles haven't been worked out of a mass-transit solution in the next decade, he says, then the highway widening will become the default solution.

"We simply can't lay enough asphalt for everyone along the Front Range to be able to drive to Summit County," he adds.

In the short term, more asphalt is inevitable. State officials are eyeing $600 million in stopgap solutions, such as new truck-climbing lanes. However, even these measures are sure to inspire a fight. At Idaho Springs, a traffic choke point 30 miles west of Denver, residents vow they will yield no more ground to the widening river of traffic.

 

Allen Best writes from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority (local government coalition), www.cifga.com, 303/567-2200;
  • Miller Hudson, CARTS, Colorado Alliance for Rapid Transit Solutions (non-governmental advocacy group), www.coloradomonorail.com, 303/480-1105;
  • Independence Institute, www.independenceinstitute.org, 303/279-6536;
  • Or see the advocacy group Web site www.highspeedmonorail.com.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Allen Best