Polis Administration, RTD, and Front Range Passenger Rail to Explore Partnership to Complete Passenger Rail Service Along and Beyond the Northwest Rail Corridor

Blurred fast moving train leaving station a vision of future northwest rail

The Polis Administration, the Regional Transporation District (RTD), and the Front Range Passenger Rail District (FRPR) released a white paper on February 19, that explores the possibility of a new partnership that would enable Colorado to complete the voter-approved Northwest Rail line between Denver, Boulder, and Longmont and to build the first phase of Front Range Passenger Rail by extending service to Fort Collins. This rail service would use the existing BNSF Front Range Subdivision through Boulder, Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins (FRPR Northwest Phase 1).

History of Northwest Rail

The 2004 FasTracks ballot initiative proposed rail service from Union Station to Boulder and Longmont (Northwest Rail) to be completed by 2017. Over the past 20 years, the FasTracks project has stalled due to a lack of adequate funding to start the project. In the meantime, the legislature created the Front Range Passenger Rail District in 2021 shifting priorities to complete both a Northwest Rail and build an intercity connected rail network from Fort Collins to Trinidad. By extending beyond Longmont to Fort Collins the train service would be considered “intercity passenger rail,” unlocking more potential for federal funding.

“Unfinished NW Rail has vexed many leaders for decades. For 20 years voters have been paying for rail service that they have not received and will continue to not receive if we hold on to the past, don’t seize the opportunities we have today and look to our future needs. I am hopeful this white paper represents a new era of collaboration and creative problem solving to address the unfulfilled commitment to the voters and deliver an important transit solution to our fast growing northern communities. With the once in a generation federal investment in intercity passenger rail, now is the time for bold leadership.” Lisa Kaufmann, Senior Strategic Advisor to Governor Jared Polis.

Exploring a Partnership

This white paper aims to initiate a discussion about the advantages that a collaboration among RTD, CDOT, and FRPR could offer in optimizing operational efficiencies and expediting the delivery of two concurrent train services planned to operate on existing tracks. Through a partnership and joint powers agreement, it becomes possible to leverage various financing options, integrate and streamline planning processes, ultimately expediting the launch of an initial service on this segment – a feat beyond the capabilities of any single entity involved.

“Through a joint powers partnership, we can leverage the strengths, funding, and existing technical work from all of our potential partners to overcome the historic challenges for providing a starter service for Northwest Rail. And at the same time, by expanding the starter service to Fort Collins, we can achieve important passenger rail goals by completing a first phase of the project, unlocking more federal resources, and buying down the total potential cost of Front Range Passenger Rail. Teaming together, we can achieve wins for several important Colorado priorities,” said John Putnam, Senior Advisor to Colorado Department of Transportation.

“It is extremely important for RTD to optimize mobility options through regional collaboration. To that end, RTD will work with its partners to leverage best practices from around the nation, explore opportunities to develop strategies that reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, thereby improving residents’ quality of life. This white paper represents a first step toward the potential coordinated development, in alignment with RTD’s own Northwest Rail Peak Service Feasibility Study, of an integrated passenger rail network,” said Debra A. Johnson, RTD General Manager and CEO.

Where to Start

The FRPR Northwest Phase 1 would be the foundation to build from for further Front Range Passenger Rail and local service and enhance chances for a voter-approved, ongoing funding source that could expand service and increase frequency. These near-term steps would also support the efforts already in motion for full passenger rail service from Pueblo to Fort Collins.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently accepted the preferred track alignment and the FRPR officially selected as its route to be the BNSF Front Range Subdivision from Union Station, through Boulder to Longmont – the same route called out for Northwest Rail in FasTracks. The FRPR proposal was also selected in the first round of grant recipients for the $36 billion Corridor Identification and Development Program created in the Federal Infrastructure bill. While the Federal Railroad Administration selected 60 corridors to develop, Colorado’s Front Range Passenger Rail District proposal is one of only two corridors selected into Step 2 of the process making federal investments uniquely available to Colorado at this time.

The Denver-Fort Collins corridor was identified as a priority in the legislation establishing FRPR: “the preferred alignment for the northern segment of the main North-South passenger rail line is through the northwest rail corridor. The Front Range Passenger Rail District shall prioritize the initiation of construction and completion of that corridor.” The District statute and Service Development Plan identify the BNSF existing rail line from Denver to Fort Collins as the preferred track alignment for Front Range Passenger Rail, which has been accepted by the FRA. This route would be considered intercity passenger rail service under federal law (as opposed to commuter rail), which opens up further federal funding opportunities. 

“We have a time-limited opportunity to use the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s grant funds directed to intercity passenger rail. This lets Colorado deliver on the potential of Front Range Passenger Rail while work continues on funding and delivering the entire corridor from Fort Collins to Pueblo,” said FRPRD General Manager Andy Karsian.

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