North rail line gains Longmont support
The Longmont City Council voted 7-0 on Oct. 2 to recommend that the Regional Transportation District extend a FasTracks line to Longmont via a route that would bypass Boulder — but also bypass the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway’s steep cost for right-of-way.
The council’s resolution attached two caveats. It wants the new rail idea to come with no additional tax increase, and it wants RTD to consider improving bus service to and from Longmont along the Interstate 25, U.S. Highway 287 and Colorado Highway 119 (Diagonal Highway) corridors.
RTD’s current FasTracks plan includes an 18-mile rail line which would stretch north from downtown Denver and run parallel to I-25 through Thornton and Northglenn to 162nd Street. If that line were to be extended to Longmont, it would have to pass through Weld County, which is not part of the transportation district. However, some Denver-to-Longmont regional express bus routes already run through Weld.
In the original FasTracks plan, Longmont was to be reached by commuter rail via a 41-mile northwest line running from downtown Denver along the U.S. Highway 36 corridor, then north along the eastern edge of Boulder and northeast to Longmont along existing BNSF tracks which parallel the Diagonal Highway. When the FasTracks tax issue first went to voters in 2004, BNSF told RTD the cost for using its tracks between Westminster and Longmont would be around $66 million. However, at a meeting in October 2011 in Chicago, BNSF told RTD it wanted $535 million – up front.
That stunning news and other cost issues, coupled with a severe economic slump, pushed RTD’s timeline for completion of the line from 2016 back to as late as 2044, and the total estimated cost from $461 million to at least $1.7 billion.
According to Lee Kemp, who has represented Longmont as District I representative on the RTD board since 2005 and is the outgoing board chairman, an advantage of reaching Longmont via the north route would be that RTD already owns the rails between downtown Denver and 162nd Street plus an additional stretch veering to a point near Erie, having purchased that line from Union Pacific three years ago for about $117 million. He estimated that another 10 to 13 miles of new track would have to be laid to reach Longmont from there, which would require negotiations with private property owners for land acquisition.
The price to lease BNSF’s rail spiked, Kemp said, because when the original cost estimates were made, fuel prices were low and it was more economical to ship many goods by truck than by rail. That situation changed, he said, when the recession hit. “Fuel costs went up, and rail’s a hell of a lot cheaper now” as a shipping method, he said, thus increasing traffic on BNSF’s lines.
Much work needs to be done, Kemp said, before work could begin on extending the north line to Longmont. “Mainly, there isn’t 100 percent consensus,” he said. “Some of the residents and stakeholders still want rail, some want a bus rapid transit option, and there’s disagreement over the rail alignment. Let’s do a reinvestment study and come up with a plan that everyone can wrap their arms around for a viable way forward.”
Kemp agreed with the Longmont City Council that the north plan might bring rail to Longmont sooner, but warned that, “even then, there’s going to be a delay unless we can get more money. Even if it ends up costing $500 million less, it will still require additional revenue.”
If the rail line to Longmont were routed north along I-25 instead of via U.S. Highway 36 and the Diagonal, a districtwide ballot issue would be required to gain voter approval of the change. Kemp said he believes voters would support such a change even if Boulder were bypassed by rail in favor of the enhanced bus rapid transit system already in the works.
“I think even the southeast corridor — places like Lone Tree — would be supportive” of finalizing a plan to build out the FasTracks system to the north, Kemp said. “They’re just waiting to hear: What does the northwest want?”
Already in the works are FasTracks rail lines from downtown Denver west to the Denver Federal Center and Golden, west-northwest to Arvada, and northeast to Denver International Airport. The West Line to Golden, which ends at the Jefferson County Government Center — the building locally known as the Taj Mahal — is expected to open April 23.
Longmont also has had conversations with cities to its north, including Loveland and Fort Collins, about connections that could tie the Denver rapid-transit system through Longmont to rail serving northern Colorado. FLEX buses, operated by the city of Fort Collins’ TransFort system, already connect Longmont and the RTD system with Berthoud, Loveland and Fort Collins.
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