I-70 Coalition discusses complex issue of bringing rail into the mountains in Copper | PostIndependent.com

I-70 Coalition discusses complex issue of bringing rail into the mountains in Copper

Alex Miller
Vail Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colorado ” Some kind of high-speed rail system running from Denver International Airport to Glenwood Springs and beyond could be a mountain traveler’s dream ” or a minefield full of unintended consequences.

That was the gist of the conversation that took place Thursday at Copper Mountain at a meeting involving the I-70 Coalition and representatives from the mountain counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation and various consultants brought into the process.

Last month, members of the Coalition agreed on several fixes to I-70 through the mountains ” including widening the highway from Floyd Hill to the twin tunnels just east of Idaho Springs; improvements to the interchange at U.S. 40; and auxiliary lanes on the east- and westbound approaches to the Eisenhower Tunnel.

The Coalition also agreed to study the feasibility of mass-transit into the mountains, and Thursday’s meeting was focused on how communities can become “transit friendly.”

Eagle County was well represented at the meeting, with County Commissioner Peter Runyon and Vail Mayor Dick Cleveland among those in attendance. After hearing consultants from the transit “project team” discuss a number of transit examples from urban areas, Runyon asked whether there was anything that would suit mountain communities that don’t have the high density most mass transit systems need to be feasible.

“It’s a different kind of model,” said John Durham, a transit expert with Norris Design in Denver. “It’s not like the Eastern cities, where the population justified the (transit) demand. The demand proven here is the number of cars on the highway.”

Durham said the team could find no real valid comparison anywhere in the world to the kind of mass-transit system that would be required here.

‘Uncharted territory’

The Thursday session set forth a host of questions about mass transit that will need to be addressed by the many communities, jurisdictions and business interests along the interstate. Since the I-70 Coalition has agreed transit should be studied, the concerns brought up were from people generally warm to the idea. But digging deeper into what a high-speed rail might do to mountain communities revealed plenty to ponder.

“What’s the reality of actually having mass transit?” asked Michael Penny, Frisco’s town manager and chair of the I-70 Coalition. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

In a small-group session focused on Eagle County, Runyon picked up on the observation that urban precedents for transit may mean little for a plan in the mountains.

“We may come up with a new definition of transit, but are we grabbing a tiger by the tail and getting unintended consequences?” Runyon said.

In different conversations, other potential consequences brought up included:

– Gentrification of towns where mass transit allows workers more easily to commute into a town like Vail while housing prices expand even further;

– Reverse commuting, where people take higher-paying jobs in Denver yet live in the mountains;

– Adding to the number of people at the already-busy ski areas on the weekends;

– Towns and counties being less inclined to build or encourage affordable housing.

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