Let me tell you about my trip to Denver last Thursday:
8:15 -- Left West Side home, bound for Denver Art Museum.
8:28 -- Headin' north on the I.
8:34 -- Traffic slows to a crawl just north of Fillmore.
8:35--8:55 -- Still crawling, but almost to Briargate.
8:55 -- Hittin' the speed limit!
9:40 -- At Belleview exit (south Denver); crawlin' along.
10:18 -- Exit at Lincoln, northbound.
10:35 -- Park in expensive lot south of museum.
10:41 -- Gratefully hit men's room at museum.
Sound familiar? Sure it does, and so what? We all know that the drive to Denver's a bitch and that it'll get worse. Just wait until the latest massive reconstruction of I-25, aptly called T-REX, gets underway; we'll have to endure five years of hell.
But, you might say, once that's finished, we'll have a lot more capacity on the interstate, not to mention light rail all the way to the Tech Center, so things'll be just fine. Sorry, but no. Light rail won't do us much good down here in the Springs, and thanks to growth plus the phenomenon known as "induced traffic," I-25 will still be jammed.
"Induced traffic," by the way, is simply a fancy term that means "build it and they will come." Improve I-25, add light rail, and developers will feast at the trough, responding to the demand for offices, apartments and retail complexes. So you get more people, and more traffic, and everything stays the same.
Sitting stalled in traffic, listening to Willie Nelson's version of "The City of New Orleans," I had an airy, comforting daydream. I imagined riding my bike from my West Side abode, down Colorado Avenue, into Confluence Park to the just-finished train station. I'd get there in time to catch the 8:35 for Denver, lug my bike aboard, and settle down. Pulling my laptop out of my daypack, I'd bang out a column and e-mail it to the office -- I'd have to write fast, though, because the trip would only take about 45 minutes from Confluence Park to Union Station. Once there, I'd wheel the bike a few yards to the light rail station, jump on, and disembark at the D.A.M. a few minutes later ...
Wake up, boy! There ain't no train station, there ain't no train, and you don't own no laptop! You be stuck in traffic in a green Toyota, so get used to it!
Fifty years ago, prior to the construction of the interstate highway system, the only way to Denver was on Highway 85/87, a serpentine stretch of two-lane blacktop known as "The Ribbon of Death." My mother had no interest in exposing her pristine '41 Oldsmobile to the perils of the road; on our occasional trips to the capital, we took the train instead; trains with impossibly romantic names -- the Rock Island Rocket, the Denver Zephyr. They're long gone, but for the most part the tracks remain, now used by slow and graceless coal trains.
Leaving aside questions of right-of-way ownership for the moment, two things seem obvious. Firstly, the Front Range corridor, say from Pueblo to Fort Collins, is both densely populated and substantially inconvenienced by I-25. Secondly, if cheap, fast, and convenient passenger rail were available along the corridor, it would not lack for patrons, particularly commuters.
The question, then, is how to finance such a system. As Amtrak has so convincingly demonstrated, passenger rail can't be profitable; it has to be subsidized by somebody (read: the taxpayers). Like a bloated sports stadium, it won't exist unless voters in a particular jurisdiction think that benefits outweigh costs.
So if we're going to have what every European takes for granted -- cheap, convenient intercity train travel -- we've gotta pay for it. And the only mechanism that might work would be a gas tax, levied only in the adjacent Front Range counties, and enacted by a vote of the people. It'd be an equitable way to finance the system, since drivers would be the beneficiaries of less crowded highways, and residents of participating counties would be system users.
Is this a practical scheme? More than likely, although you'd have to spend a few hundred thousand on a feasibility study to find out. The barriers are mainly political/institutional. You'd have to overcome decades of inertia, not to mention a skeptical Legislature, entrenched railroad barons (Phil Anschutz has $8 billion reasons why he's right, and you're not) and even our city utilities department (who do you think owns them coal trains, bud?).
And if you got through all that, then the people would still have to vote to raise taxes ... I wouldn't be in any rush to buy tickets for the inaugural run.