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CDOT moves ahead with northwest passenger rail study, expanded Bustang service

October 23, 2023, 1:19 pm

The Colorado Department of Transportation on Monday issued the following press release on $5 million in funding to study the return of passenger rail service in Northwest Colorado:

Passenger rail service from Denver through Steamboat Springs and on to Craig could be re-established thanks to a $5 million investment that will study the rail line as well as statewide transit connectivity, such as the Bustang system on I-70 and how it can grow in the future. 

Local communities along the Yampa Valley have brought attention to the potential to re-establish passenger rail, specifically along the 191-mile Union Pacific Railroad route that runs from Denver through Winter Park and Steamboat Springs, ending in Craig. Passenger rail service along this route ended in 1968. 

When communities move from high carbon-producing industries to more sustainable practices, policymakers often aim for what is called a “just transition” — a plan that takes into account the economic and environmental concerns of the affected communities. A just transition has been a top priority for Gov. Jared Polis’s administration, and maintaining freight and passenger rail connectivity is a priority for the Yampa Valley as it transitions from coal. The service development plan, for which the Colorado Transportation Commission has approved funding, will provide data and suggest service options for this corridor. 

“Convenient passenger rail would be amazing!” Gov. Polis said. “A just transition for communities moving away from coal production, cutting traffic and reducing pollution are some of my administration’s top priorities. Expanding passenger rail service to the Yampa Valley can help on all these objectives. 

“Funding for a service development plan for northwest mountain rail is a critical step toward making this passenger rail expansion a reality. Passenger rail can create jobs and boost our mountain communities in the Yampa Valley.”

The vision for mountain rail, which CDOT has been working on for months, became a real possibility because of recent developments that include dramatically decreased coal train traffic on Union Pacific rail lines, leading UP officials to be open to the possibility of hosting more passenger rail on its mountain lines. UP lines already serve the California Zephyr and Winter Park ski trains, but there is capacity for more passenger service, including from Denver to Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig.  

“We have an unusual confluence of favorable conditions in place right now,” said CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. “This is a rare opportunity for us to get significant funding for a project that we know is very doable.”

The passenger rail service would likely coordinate with and complement bus service in the mountains, including CDOT’s own Bustang system. And the train ride itself would be breathtaking, running through some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.

The plan has support from a wide coalition that includes lawmakers, members of Congress, cities and towns along the route as well as many businesses. 

“This is exciting news for northwest Colorado!” said Rep. Meghan Lukens, whose district includes Steamboat Springs. “We’ve been working hard to develop this critical rail option, and now we’re one step closer to making it a reality. Transitioning the existing rail line to passenger rail would lower the cost of living in our communities, create new job opportunities, connect people with more affordable housing options and grow our economy. I’m thrilled the Colorado Transportation Commission has approved our request to create a service development plan for this route.”

The next steps would include stakeholder input with communities along the route, counties, recreation industry partners and Union Pacific. Independently, CDOT is working with the Front Range Passenger Rail District on planning for Front Range Passenger Rail, which would provide complementary service from Pueblo, through Denver, to Fort Collins and ultimately to Wyoming and New Mexico.

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