Buena Vistan Christof Stork has a vision for the future of commuter travel throughout Central Colorado. The idea came about 18 months ago when Stork said he began thinking about the potential for commuter train travel between two of Colorado’s most popular tourist destinations – the Arkansas Valley and Eagle Valley.
Stork’s vision is a 110-mile train route from Lake County over Tennessee Pass all the way to Eagle County, with 18 stops in nine cities along the way.
“The three roles this can play are worker commutes early in the mornings and late afternoons, it can provide tourist transport options and thirdly it can provide for casual recreation commutes,” Stork said.
While the vision is ambitious and the economic benefits to the towns and cities along the route, including Buena Vista, could be great, Stork and other potential stakeholders will need to strike up a deal with Union Pacific to either purchase or lease use of those tracks.
At this time, however, Union Pacific said by email it has no interest in selling the right-of-way between Parkdale and Eagle.
“Union Pacific occasionally receives proposals to utilize or purchase our right-of-way. When reviewing such proposals, our top priority continues to be maintaining our ability to provide safe and efficient service for current or potential customers, which are providing the raw and finished material Americans use daily,” Union Pacific director for Corporate Communications Calli Hite said. “We do not intend to sell our right-of-way between Parkdale and Eagle.”
A train to somewhere
As tourism throughout Colorado continues to grow, congestion and traffic are also on the rise, Stork said.
The Colorado Tourism Office reported in July that Colorado broke record tourism numbers for the fifth consecutive year in 2015.
Some 77.7 million visitors descended on the state last year, spending an all-time high of $19.1 billion, which generated $1.13 billion in state and local taxes, marking a nearly 7 percent increase from 2014.
Buena Vista also broke all-time monthly sales tax revenues in June, July and August of this year.
Stork said a commuter line like this would take some tourists off of Colorado’s busy highways and interstates and would allow Colorado’s working commuters along this route a safer, easier and much more efficient way to get to and from work everyday.
“Not only will this be an economic benefit to the valley, but the other things is this is a more efficient way to handle increased tourist traffic. It concentrates tourists so you won’t have them on the roads and you won’t have to build 2 acres of parking. You also encourage the tourists to be in the town centers,” Stork said.
The possible train destinations for the Buena Vista area are one stop in Nathrop and one in downtown Buena Vista, across from town hall.
Outside of commuter and tourism travel, Stork said the route opens up opportunities for recreation trips throughout the valley for residents and visitors.
Imagine if you could haul your mountain bike in the morning up to Turquoise Lake or Clear Creek Reservoir and bike back downhill in the afternoon, Stork asked.
“That’s exactly the kind of casual commuting I would like to see,” Stork said.
Things like the Stage and Rail Trail from Leadville to Buena Vista, currently being developed by local, state and national partners and included on Governor Hickenlooper’s Colorado The Beautiful Initiative, could start off with a train ride up to Leadville or one down to Salida and hikers or bikers could finish the route back uphill or downhill.
A costly endeavor?
Potential morning or late afternoon shuttles from Salida to Buena Vista or Eagle to Minturn would cost between $5-$20 and commuters could purchase a monthly commuter pass for $100.
One-time round trips over Tennessee Pass, which Stork said would include some kind of coffee or alcoholic beverage, would cost around $140.
Stork estimates start-up costs for the route to be between $20-$80 million, but said because tourism travel would likely subsidize commuter travel, the route could operate at around a $10 million annual profit.
While the route could enhance tourism and result in increased tax revenues for the cities and towns along the route, Stork said getting a project like this up and running would require partnerships between Lake, Chaffee and Eagle counties, active citizen engagement and championing of the idea.
Citizens in those three counties could also vote to approve some kind of tri-county transit tax, which Stork admitted could face some potential political backlash.
“The key thing is it would be economically sufficient. It would bring winter tourism from Eagle Valley into Chaffee County and summer tourism from Chaffee County to Eagle Valley. I think it would also help concentrate and manage tourists because they would be in fewer locations,” Stork said.
The other obvious partner is Union Pacific. Stork said they’re not a charity and would likely require between $200-$400 million in order to purchase right-of-way for the Tennessee Pass Line.
“Union Pacific is clearly a major player. They own those tracks, they own the route and they can do with it what they want,” Stork said. “Now currently, it’s not generating any revenue for Union Pacific and Union Pacific has probably gotten around 12 proposals for small train lines, but they just wouldn’t make enough money to catch their (Union Pacific’s) interest.”
While the startup costs and money to purchase the right-of-way for those tracks is a lot, Stork said the Denver FastTrack line cost around $2.1 billion for 40 miles of tracks.
One alternative to purchasing the tracks’ right of way is an exchange with the state, Stork said.
Union Pacific owns the Tennessee Pass line, but leases part of the Moffat Tunnel line from the state. Stork said one possibility is for the state to exchange their Moffat Tunnel right-of-way, which Stork said could be as valuable as $500 million, for the Tennessee Pass right-of-way.
Union Pacific has not commented on the potential for this exchange, however.
In order to operate the line and trains, Stork said there are several transit agencies between Lake County and Eagle County that may be interested. He said he has already been in contact with ECO Transit out of Eagle County as one project stakeholder.
For the idea to sustain momentum, Stork said the two most important players are county commissioners and politicians in Lake, Eagle and Chaffee counties and the citizens and tax base in those counties.
Stork said if interested in the idea, residents should call their county commissioners and express interest in a commuter line like this one. Stork hopes commissioners and interested transit agencies may hold public hearings to gauge interest in coming years.
“I would say reach out to your county commissioners. Tell them, you want it. If the clear majority of the communities of Chaffee, Lake and Eagle counties think it would be beneficial in various ways then this can hopefully get a consensus and they (commissioners) can go to the state and say ‘we want to see this happen’,” Stork said.