There you are, in the rolling plains north of Monument. It's hot. The air conditioner is killing your gas mileage, but the air is too thick with exhaust to roll down your window. The cars stretch bumper-to-bumper to the horizon. And then it comes — the ultimate insult to injury — a clunky coal train.
And yes, it's passing you. Slowly.
Perhaps it's no wonder that our state transportation planners are studying the possibility of high-speed commuter rail along this very line, urged on by what appears to be growing public support. The problem is that a big idea like that takes a lot of time and planning, and about $14 billion.
In the meantime, however, frustrated travelers could soon have another option: a bus.
"We are in the midst of doing a very thorough evaluation of running some limited bus service from Colorado Springs to Denver, from Fort Collins to Denver," says Mark Imhoff, division director of transit and rail for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
This isn't a totally new idea. The Front Range Express (FREX) bus ran between Colorado Springs and Denver from 2004 to 2012, offering travelers comfortable cruising with a Wi-Fi connection. Originally, several local governments (Denver not included) chipped in for FREX, but the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority, which is funded by taxes from Pikes Peak area residents, picked up most of the tab.
As the recession forced cities to make cutbacks, PPRTA began picking up all of the tab. Claiming the situation was inequitable, Mayor Steve Bach performed political cartwheels to kill FREX last year, to the chagrin of City Council and the PPRTA board, and to the disappointment of state transportation planners. The state had paid for the buses.
"I think the [state transportation] commissioners were very enamored of FREX," says Les Gruen, the local representative at the Colorado Transportation Commission. "They were very interested in keeping FREX alive, they just couldn't do so financially."
Imhoff explains that when state planners first began considering regional transit, no one was sure the state had the authority to pay for the operation of a bus; CDOT traditionally funds capital projects like highway construction. But eventually, staff determined such a move would be allowable thanks to 2009 law changes like the addition of Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery (FASTER) fees for transportation, and the creation of CDOT's transit and rail division.
Still, there are precious few resources. The state only receives about $10 million a year in FASTER funds for transit, much of which goes to local transit programs. And without FREX in place, the state will have to start from scratch: buying buses, hiring drivers, and attracting customers. Still, state officials are pressing on with the plan, and hope to introduce regional bus service as early as fall 2014. Even though service will be quite limited, supporters are rallying.
"The success of FREX really proves the need for regional transit of some sort," says City Councilor Jan Martin, a long-time cheerleader for FREX. "I think people will embrace the concept and gladly jump on board."
Once the program starts, Imhoff says his department will be mining data on how the new buses are used in order to better plan expansions in regional transit.
And yes, that could include a train.