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Mass Transit and the Emerging Front Range Megalopolis

by Worldchanging Denver local blogger, Nathan Acks

Both of Denver's major newspapers --- the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post --- recently highlighted the development of a far-reaching mass transit system designed to link together much of the Front Range. (For those who don't hail from the region, the "Front Range" is normally used to describe the thin corridor where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains. It can be be visualized by drawing a shallow arc from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Casper, Wyoming through Denver, Colorado.) The plan, known as the "Ranger Xpress," is perhaps best described by the Rocky Mountain News:

It's a proposal to develop 700 miles of modern track that would thread together the highly populated Front Range and the busy Interstate 70 mountain corridor between Denver and Grand Junction.

An additional 300 miles past the northern and southern borders of the state would allow passengers to continue as far north as Casper and south of Albuquerque thanks to concurrent efforts in those states.

Additionally, the Ranger Xpress would hook into the Regional Transportation District's FasTracks rail system, the most prominent part of which is Denver's growing light rail network.

The plan's mastermind, Bob Briggs, is seeking to get the Ranger Xpress designated as a "high-speed rail corridor" by the US federal government, a move that would ease some of the financial burden the plan places on Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Funding currently exists for 11 such corridors, but only 10 have so far been named. All of the current networks steer far clear of the American West, a hole in a growing national high-speed rail network that the Ranger Xpress would partially, but not entirely, fill. (This map, produced by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority and Colorado Rail Association, makes both the utility and shortcomings of the Ranger Xpress readily apparent.)

The emergence of high-speed rail (defined as a rail service that "exceed[s] 90 miles-per-hour over 75% of the time on its routes") as a viable intra-regional transportation system within the United States is interesting for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that it may provide a practical alternative to air travel --- which dumps a significant quantity of CO2 into the atmosphere and also contributes to the formation of heat-traping high-altitude clouds --- at least for cities within its reach. Rail systems also make incredibly good use of the available space, requiring less than 16% of the right-of-way used by the freeways that link cities in the United States together, and less than 7% of the right-of-way used by side streets.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Ranger Xpress system is not its technical aspects, however, but its social implications. The Front Range has experienced significant growth over the past few decades; a drive along the Colorado portion of Interstate 25, which runs the length of the proposed rail system, reveals that the cities that define the Front Range are now almost entirely connected by suburban and exurban development. Most of the region was also originally part of Mexico, and its culture remains strongly influenced by continued immigration from Latin America. These factors would seem to indicate that the Casper-Denver-Albuquerque corridor is likely a future megapolitan area --- a region that "covers multiple metropolitan and "micropolitan" areas, yet has a distinct economic and historical identity." This thesis is further supported by the CommonCensus Map Project, which notes that Front Range is dominated by the influence of four cities --- Denver, Colorado Springs, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque --- all of which would be joined by the Ranger Xpress (the close correspondence between megapolitan areas and the CommonCensus cultural footprint map has previously been noted on Worldchanging). Given the current evolution of the Front Range, the Ranger Xpress probably represents an important step towards building a common regional infrastructure.

Such integration is not to the taste of everybody affected by the proposal, however. The Denver Post notes that

[t]own leaders [in Castle Rock, Colorado] will decide within a month whether to stay on board a study committee for a Front Range commuter-rail line from Wyoming to New Mexico.

The decision will be just the latest transportation maneuver for the Douglas County seat, located between Denver and Colorado Springs, as it finds its place among merging Front Range communities.

"It's not that we want to be isolated," said Joe Procopio, chairman of Castle Rock's Public Works Commission, past chairman of its transportation advisory committee and a member of the commuter-rail study group.

"Regional transportation is critical, but it has to make economic sense."

If state voters approve funding for the line in an expected 2008 referendum, commuter rail could be ferrying riders as early as 2015.

Already, the Douglas County Commission has said no to a $50,000 request to help fund the study.

While the stated reasons are economic, there are undoubtedly social factors contributing to this reluctance as well. As the Front Range has developed, Denver has increasingly flexed its political and economic muscle to bring surrounding communities into its orbit. That many of them are beginning to oppose the sometimes heavy-handed attitude of Colorado's central metropolis is understandable, and while it seems unlikely that such opposition will stop a Front Range megalopolis from emerging, that doesn't mean it should be ignored. It would be unfortunate to see the identity of cities like Castle Rock sacrificed for the sake of the region's greater cultural, economic, and political unity.

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Is there an equivalent to carbon credits ("transit" credits, I suppose) that one might buy to support mass transit schemes such as these? (Or, perhaps more appealing, some way to buy tickets for rides even before the line is built?) For example, perhaps one regularly drives from Denver and Colorado Springs; each time one makes the journey, a ticket could be purchased online for future use. The funds from this could be kept in reserve for construction capital; ticket credit would be issued when the line is built (and, perhaps, the interest gained would be split between the investor and the transit authority).

If the plan for construction fell through, the investor would have funds returned or could opt to invest in another transit program.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 7 Jan 07

...and it could (indeed should) be electrified, which means it's oilless.

Posted by: Alex on 7 Jan 07

I'm all in on a commuter rail linking Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. I had no idea there were plans to stretch it from Casper to Albequerque.

"It would be unfortunate to see the identity of cities like Castle Rock sacrificed for the sake of the region's greater cultural, economic, and political unity."

I disagree with that perspective. A commuter rail system would do very little to smudge the identity of towns like Castle Rock. The rolling seas of copy-paste house plans do a good job of that.

I think increased mobility in the region will increase assortive habitation. With effective regional mass-transportation people will live in places and next to people that they feel close cultural ties with instead of spreading out. It could end up creating many new and diverse cultural centers rather than homegenizing the region.

I look forward to the introduction of large-scale effective commuter rail. Fort Collins recently approved a plan to run commuter rail along it's major commercial spine. I can't wait for that. Our major spine (Hwy 287) is overly congested and people need an alternative.

Posted by: Jesse on 8 Jan 07



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