Commuter trains could connect the West's far-flung cities

  • Artist's conception of the Rail Runner Express, which may one day run from Albuquerque, New Mexico, north to Cheyenne, Wyoming

    Courtesy Mid-Region Council of Governments
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Back On Track."

Even as light-rail lines promise to revolutionize transportation within the West’s metropolitan areas, longer commuter rails could connect these far-flung cities in ways they have not since railroad’s glory days a century ago.

Unlike light rail, which uses overhead electrical lines, commuter-rail trains are pulled by diesel-powered locomotives. Although they are slower to start and stop, they cost less to operate. They can also run on existing rail lines, meaning that cities can often avoid spending billions on new track; they just buy passenger cars and build new stations, and they’re off and running.

Albuquerque has talked about commuter rail for more than 30 years. Now, prodded by Gov. Bill Richardson, D, the idea is finally pulling out of the station. Early next year, the Rail Runner Express will start chugging along 46 miles of existing track paralleling the Rio Grande, providing an alternative to the increasingly snarled Interstate 25.

The rail is needed, according to regional planners, because metropolitan Albuquerque’s population, now 740,000, is projected to surpass 1 million in the next 25 years.

"We are seeing a lot of the signs — especially related to traffic congestion — that Denver saw 20 years ago," says Chris Blewett, planning director with the Mid-Regional Council of Governments. "What we’re trying to do is get out ahead of some of this stuff, especially when it comes to having transportation choices."

Rail Runner is just the beginning of Richardson’s transportation vision. By 2008, he wants the line extended 60 miles north, to Santa Fe. An estimated 15,000 commuters travel daily between the pricey state capital and blue-collar Albuquerque. While some grouse that New Mexico would be better served by bus transportation or bigger highways, a state study estimates that six-laning I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe would cost $514 million, but stay ahead of congestion for only 20 years. In contrast, planners figure a new rail route would cost between $157 million and $352 million.

Eventually, New Mexico officials envision passenger rail links south to El Paso, Texas, and north along Colorado’s Front Range all the way to Cheyenne, Wyo. It’s an idea that sounds perfectly feasible to rail proponents and political leaders along the ever-more-congested Front Range.

In Denver, commuter rail is included in the FasTracks expansion, with trains set to radiate to Boulder and Denver International Airport in 10 years. Approval of FasTracks has given proponents of a commuter-rail system from Pueblo to Greeley new credibility, says Jon Esty, who heads the Colorado Rail Passenger Association.

Cheyenne, 95 miles north of Denver along Interstate 25, also wants to be part of the discussion. "From our perspective, Cheyenne is part of the Front Range," says Randy Burns, executive director of Cheyenne Leads, an economic development group. A commuter rail line would enhance the considerable economic ties between the cities. "Denver is the economic center of gravity for the Intermountain West," Burns says.

He contends that the shifting of freight shipping from trains to trucks has crowded interstate highways and left train tracks, at least in some cases, underused. The time to get on board with commuter rail is now, he says: "If you wait until I-25 is a parking lot, you’re too late."

Funding for commuter rail has been scarce in recent decades, but Bob Briggs, a former state legislator from Denver’s northwest suburbs, points out that the new federal transportation bill provides more for mass transit than has ever been allocated. He believes Colorado, with its proven commitment to rail, stands a good chance of getting federal aid.

Meanwhile, other Western cities are also planning commuter rail lines. In Utah, governments along the Wasatch Front are working on 44 miles of commuter-line rail, scheduled to debut in 2008. The line will eventually extend for 120 miles, serving the communities that house 80 percent of Utah’s population.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]