Economy thwarts Eagle County’s regional rail study | AspenTimes.com

Economy thwarts Eagle County’s regional rail study

Chris Outcalt
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Vail Daily fileThe struggling economy has derailed a plan to study the future of regional transit in Eagle County, including a rail system from Vail to Dotsero, currently linked Interstate 70.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” An Eagle County plan to study regional transit won’t be funded this year by the state because of the poor economy, said Eagle County transit planner David Johnson.

Months ago, Johnson was optimistic state funds would be available to study regional transportation alternatives, including a rail system from Vail to Dotsero.

The state set aside $70 million dollars over three years for transportation projects. But as the economy dipped, that number was adjusted to $17 million and the $250,000 study Johnson hoped to conduct got bumped from the project list, he said.

“Before we had this economic downturn, we had some pretty optimistic projections for Senate Bill 1 funding,” Johnson said. “That projection has plummeted.”

Senate Bill 1 allocates some state sales tax revenue for transportation funding.

Johnson expected to get 80 percent of the money for the study from the state. Now he’s looking for other ways to fund the project and weighing the importance of the study against other county transportation needs.

“Sometimes I think I can shoot this off tomorrow and other days I think it might take two or three years,” Johnson said.

Studying regional transit isn’t a new idea.

“Some of the things they talked about 10 years ago still ring true,” Johnson said.

A 1998 county study identified the need for a regional rail system from Gypsum to Vail.

“By providing a light rail and trail system in the Eagle and Vail Valleys, we will connect our communities and resorts, and redistribute local traffic to relieve pressure and improve conditions on Interstate 70,” the study said.

But continued growth in the county, and increased concern over global warming and the price of fuel have made studying regional transportation alternatives more important, Johnson said.

“The situation has changed in a number of ways. We never talked about carbon dioxide,” he said. “It not only squeezes us in terms of fuel, but it squeezes our wallets ” transit becomes more important.”

The county is already seeing the increased use.

ECO Transit’s 2008 ridership is expected to reach 1.2 million trips ” a 20 percent increase over the previous year, Johnson said.

“While we do not expect ridership to increase at such a rate every year, we believe that transit will become an increasingly preferred mobility option in Eagle County,” Johnson said.

Johnson estimates ECO Transit’s ridership will quadruple in the next 25 years. New regional and local transit will need to absorb some of the new riders, he said.

“We really have to take a look at the concept of regional rail on this corridor,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the study he hoped to get state funding for would be a 20-year vision for regional transit in the area.

“When all is said and done, I would like to be able to take a look at several different transit alternatives and be able to say, ‘This is regional rail, and it’s going to cost this much to build and operate, and will generate x amount of riders and address these community problems and values,'” Johnson said.

Estimates show Eagle County’s population doubling in the next 25 years, he said. But as the area’s population and road congestion increases, Johnson said, it will be more difficult for ECO Transit buses to move people effectively.

The county owes it to the public to take a look at demand for alternative forms of transportation, he said.

“We must consider how to be the transit system we need to be in 5, 10 and 20 years,” he said.

Only about 4 percent of the remaining undeveloped land in Eagle County is developable, according the Eagle County Economic Development Council.

Most of that land is along the Interstate 70 corridor, Johnson said.

“We have this explosive growth and very little land to accommodate it,” he said. “That’s why it makes sense to look at rail.”

Johnson is considering trying to get the study funded in parts in order to get it started. But it could still take a while to get going.

“Given the current financial climate, the study will likely be tabled for at least a year,” he said.

Actually getting a rail system is an even bigger question mark.

“There are some days when I feel like I will see this rail system in 50 years,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like maybe it’s more like 10 years.”

coutcalt@vaildaily.com


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