It was 46 minutes into a 54-minute conversation about Front Range commuter rail before the elephant in the room showed up.
What if taxpayers up and down the Front Range won’t help pay for commuter rail, the way they haven't been willing to pony up for highways?
The top brass at Amtrak got on the phone with some Colorado press folks Monday morning to discuss that gamble, eventually, but especially to talk up the rewards of connecting New Mexico to Wyoming via the Front Range, or roughly equal to the trip from Washington, D.C., to New Haven, Connecticut.
"In theory we could start to see some service in a decade," said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s president.
The momentum to start is now, however.
President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan offers $85 billion to modernize transit (rail, buses and the like) and $80 billion to update and expand the U.S. freight and passenger rail networks.
The idea has a friend in the White House. Long before he was Sleepy Joe, he was Amtrak Joe. The senator and future president spent three hours a day on the train between Washington and Wilmington so he could be home from the U.S. Senate to be with his sons, after they lost their sister and mother in a car crash.
"Amtrak doesn’t just carry us from one place to another — it makes things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be," Biden wrote in an op-ed. "For 36 years, I was able to make most of those birthday parties, to get home to read bedtime stories, to cheer for my children at their soccer games. Simply put, Amtrak gave me — and countless other Americans — more time with my family. That’s worth immeasurably more to me than the fare printed on the ticket."
Parents working in Denver could be with their family in Pueblo or Cheyenne each night, without the challenge and risk of the road.
Amtrak included the Front Range on its 2035 Vision Map released this month.
The door's open, but the ride it ain't free.
The numbers bounce around and the rail bosses couldn't pin it down Monday, but we're talking $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion, divided among the regional, state and federal partners.
“Our broader national plan is to grow rail service and connect new city (lines) across our country and rise to the urgent challenge of our time and provide new and improved train service to millions of additional passengers,” Bill Flynn, Amtrak’s CEO, told reporters.
Colorado is holding out for a hero, and Amtrak might fit the bill. If the population is what they say it will be in 2050, then I-25 will need six more lanes, according to a corridor study.
No doubt there are economic benefits to be had, but it's two steps back to go one step forward if progress is predicated on draining badly needed money from the interstates, which haul our current economic load. That's a real concern.
If Biden and Congress don’t get it done, that doesn’t mean the train doesn't roll; it just gets harder to pay for it, Flynn said. That's where you come in.
Gardner, the CEO, responded to my skepticism about our voters and taxes by pointing to a 2019 poll that indicated 85% support for the concept, and 61% support from 600 surveyed Coloradans for an unspecified sales tax increase.
I’m reminded of another nonpartisan poll in 2018 that flagged 72% support from likely voters to borrow $3.5 billion for roads and bridges without raising taxes. Nine months later, 61% of voters were against it.
A vote would most likely happen in 2023 or 2025, and it wouldn’t be statewide.
Last week Senate Bill 238 was introduced to the General Assembly to create a special district with its own board to plan, finance, build and manage the rail line. The people in that district would be on the hook to pay for it. Even if fares pay back loans, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires public approval, which will be hard to come by.
Flynn noted that 85% of Colorado's population lives along this Front Range, yet only Denver has commuter rail.
“It's a huge opportunity,” he said. “I'm amazed at how significant the growth has been in the Front Range, how nearly 5 million people today have really only one choice in this market to get around, and how added mobility through passenger rail can make a real difference.
“You look at the map today and you look at these facts and you say, ‘How is it that passenger rail doesn't already serve this community?’"
In 2017 I met up with Jared Polis for breakfast soon after he announced he was running for governor. He said passenger rail was on his agenda. I scoffed.
He's proven since, like it or not, that he gets things done — on health care, on preschool and putting his pedal to his metal on regulating oil and gas.
There’s a reason he’s the governor and a tech millionaire, and it’s not because he scoffed at opportunities.