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Rail operator sees potential in valley

Allyn Harvey

Representatives from one of the largest industrial conglomerates in the world told local business leaders Tuesday that their firm could finance, build and operate both commuter and light-rail systems for less than $3 per passenger.

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association hosted representatives from ADtranz, the rail division of DaimlerChrysler, yesterday for a question-and-answer session that lasted about a half-hour longer than scheduled.

By the time it was over, ACRA members heard about the company’s successful operations around the world, its not-so-successful experience in Miami, and its hopes for the Roaring Fork Valley.

ADtranz Vice President Andy Robbins told the audience – including many of the elected and transportation officials who have been studying the viability of commuter rail – his company has taken a close look at the Roaring Fork Valley and decided it is worth the investment, as long as the political and popular support is in place.

“We don’t have to do business here, there’s plenty of work for us elsewhere around the world,” he said. “But everything we looked at here tells us that building a rail system here makes sense.”

If ADtranz does end up doing business here, Robbins expressed confidence the system could operate profitably with a fare structure similar to the one currently used by the Roaring Fork Transit Agency. The one caveat to that estimate is ADtranz’s ability to design build, supply, operate and maintain the entire light-rail and valley commuter rail system over the next 30 years. And local government would have to agree not to start a competing bus service or build additional highway lanes.

“What we think makes it work is the fact that it gets more and more difficult to expand the highway, from two to four to six lanes,”said Paul Giannelia, president of Calgary-based SC Infrastructure, who accompanied Robbins.

By letting the company build and manage the system, the valley would only have one contractor to deal with, Robbins said. DaimlerChrysler would assume the risk of construction and operating cost overruns, but the company would be able to borrow the money it needs right away, and control every phase of construction.

Risks for local government include acquisition of the right of way and clearing the political and administrative hurdles needed to build the system, Robbins said. It would also be responsible for repaying the cost of construction.

Community Bank of Aspen executive Howie Mallory said he was particularly impressed with the idea of risk sharing. Fears of construction and operating cost overruns are one of the biggest concerns he’s heard when talking to people about the train. But given DaimlerChrysler’s credentials, Mallory, who is treasurer of the pro-rail group Citizens for a Livable Valley, would like to see a more detailed proposal from all of the firms courting the valley – DaimlerChrysler, Seimens and Bombardier.

“These guys aren’t out to scam a deal or take advantage of a desperate community. It’s worthwhile hearing their proposal,” Mallory said.

Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority director Tom Newland noted that other systems built by DaimlerChrysler have cost between 10 to 15 percent less than anticipated. The company is currently designing and building a system in southern New Jersey, and working in Calgary to build, operate and maintain a system bid out at $1 billion.

One of the company’s least pleasant experiences came in Miami, Robbins said, but the problems had less to do with the company and its technology than the routing decisions made by political leaders there.

“If you can finish the environmental impact study and select a private partner by February 2000, we believe we can have a system up and running two years later,” Robbins said.


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