Cost of building light rail climbs to $300 mil
The latest estimate on how much it will cost to build a rail systemfrom Glenwood Springs to Aspen has chugged to a new high: $302.5million.That number was presented to the Roaring Fork Railroad HoldingAuthority policy committee Friday.The latest cost, which of course is subject to change, was ina report prepared for RFRHA by executive director Tom Newland.Here’s how he reached that figure: $8.5 million for the 35-mile corridor. $85 million cost of construction cost on the existing corridor.$63 million to construct the Entrance to Aspen light rail project.$67 million for the highway realignment from Brush Creek to theAspen airport.$9.5 million to extend rail to West Glenwood.$29 million to realign the corridor through El Jebel and Basalt.$4 million to extend electricity from Brush Creek to the airport.$18.5 million to bring the rails up to Federal TransportationAgency standards.$18 million in design requirements.The plan for financing that large chunk of change uses a varietyof sources. To date, local and state funding has covered the $8.5 millioncorridor purchase; and $63 million has been promised from uppervalley governments to cover the cost of light rail from BrushCreek to downtown Aspen. The Colorado Department of Transportation will cover the $67 millionto realign Highway 82 from Brush Creek to the Aspen airport.In addition, Congress has authorized $2 million for preliminaryengineering for the project, appropriated in 1997, and has indicatedit will cough up $85 million in funds through the TransportationEquity Act for the 21st Century.That leaves, according to Newland’s estimate, a $77 million shortfall.Members of the RFRHA board of directors went to Denver this weekin search of financing. They spoke with Rep. Russell George, briefinghim on the new $300 million price tag for rail in the valley.And they wanted to know what he could do for them.”I don’t know if I can give hope for a railroad,” George said.The transportation funding priority this year seems to be “FrontRange needs,” George explained. “Of course we’ll keep [RFRHA]up on our radar screens.”For Gov. Bill Owens, his top priority will be adding new trafficlanes to Interstate 25. “He’s also agreed to help fund light rail,”George added.But RFRHA should not expect any help from the state. “The money’snot there. Rail is very, very expensive … very capital intensive,and very expensive to operate,” he said.George hastened to add that he supports rail service in the RoaringFork Valley. But he sees as something that is needed in the longterm – say 50 years. “We have to have the vision,” he said. “We need light rail inthese important corridors. In 50 years I’d like to see mass transitfrom DIA to Glenwood Springs, connecting to Aspen and SteamboatSprings.”Federal funding through the Transportation Equity Act for the21st Century (TEA 21) is still RFRHA’s best bet. But it’s by nomeans a slam dunk.Pete Sloan, an industry lobbyist with the firm of Black, Kelly,Scruggs and Healey, told the RFRHA policy committee Friday, “It’sgoing to be very tight for transportation funding this year.”RFRHA is “in the pipeline” for TEA 21 funds handed out by theFederal Transportation Administration. Congress has already authorized$85 million for the project, but it still has a number of hurdlesto clear before the funding is assured.And, Sloan explained, the $85 million is by no means a cap onthe amount of funding the project could be awarded.But RFRHA must also realize that federal dollars come in slowly,probably slower than necessary to cover project costs at the outset,he added.And there is a Catch-22 in the funding since projects are requiredto “use it or lose it” within three years after the money is appropriated,Sloan explained.What RFRHA will undoubtedly need is some sort of funding, whetherit be through local tax revenue or borrowed on credit, to carryit through until federal funding kicks in.The outlook for raising taxes for transit is bleak. Only one transitballot measure passed in last year’s election, in the entire nation,Sloan explained.TEA 21 funds amount to about $900 million for fiscal 1999. Andwhile Congress has set guaranteed levels of funding for projects,those are not necessarily met. It’s a political decision as towhat each project will receive.While Sloan praised the RFRHA rail project, and called much ofthe competition “dogs,” demand for funding “grows exponentiallyevery day.”As it stands now, RFRHA is in an elite group of 51 projects thathave “special priority” for funding. But it must still pass arigorous screening process that evaluates the merits of each project.What is working in RFRHA’s favor is the certain attrition of someof these projects, and the fact that RFRHA can demonstrate a 50percent match in local funding.But the project also needs to score high in critical criteria,including land-use planning and the ability to meet construction,operation and maintenance costs. Two companies that manufacture train engines, Ad Trans and Siemans,have indicated an interest in providing financing, said AspenMayor John Bennett, who sits on the RFRHA policy committee.Sloan also admitted that the project does not fit into any neatcategory. “It doesn’t look like any New Start project in the country…. It took a lot of effort to make it credible. But being anomalousgives us an advantage.”With all the political uncertainty attached to TEA 21, it remainsuncertain what RFRHA will get in the way of federal funding. Sloansaid RFRHA also has strong advocates in the Colorado congressionaldelegation which includes Senators Wayne Allard and Ben NighthorseCampbell and Rep. Scott McInnis, all of whom sit on key legislativecommittees.
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It might be public service serving on Aspen City Council but it doesn’t pay enough, the majority of electeds say. That’s why they are proposing to give their successors a $12,000 raise.