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"Rail to Vail" Proposal is Wasteful and Useless

Opinion Editorial
August 3, 1999

By Stephen R. Mueller

A few have called it “visionary.” For most taxpayers, however, the “Rail to Vail” proposal is best described as “wasteful and useless.”  It will eat up billions of our scarce tax dollars and provide literally no benefits to most Coloradoans. 
Anyone who has driven I-70 into the mountains knows that traffic congestion is a problem at certain times and that the problem is getting worse. The issue is how to solve the problem in the most cost-effective manner. There are better, proven technologies to solve traffic congestion on I-70. The last unproven technology we bought was the DIA baggage system, and now some people want to build one that you can stick people into and launch them over the Continental Divide!

If you don’t care about the costs, about how much you already pay in taxes, you may want to support the “Rail to Vail” plan.  If you think that everyone else will get out of their cars in order to take a Disney-like monorail system into the mountains, this plan is for you.  

On the other hand, if you think that most people who go to the mountains are a little more free-spirited, that they like to wander off the beaten paths and enjoy the natural beauty that Colorado offers, you will know that the train just won’t attract enough people to have any impact whatsoever on the traffic congestion problem.  It may make a stop here and there before it gets to Vail, but then what do you do? How do you get to the remote, people-free destinations from the train station?  If you are rich, this isn’t a problem — but it isn’t right to use our tax dollars as welfare for the rich.  If you are poor or middle class, you will NEED your car to get near to your final destination. For most Coloradoans, the train won’t be an option on their mountain journey.

What about the skiers?  If you want to take a train to go skiing, call the Ski Train. For $40.00 per person round trip, you can avoid the I-70 hassles.  This is a private operation – not subsidized by tax dollars, and it has existed for 60 years.  The Ski Train carries about 750 passengers each Saturday and Sunday from December thru April.  If it runs full, it will generate about $30,000.00 per day for 40 days per year.  With extra trips during Christmas and summers, the Ski Train might generate as much as $2 million dollars per year for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.  At that rate, the $4.4 billion dollar “Rail to Vail” plan would break even in 2,200 years!  For the price of the 3-mile test section ($100 million dollars), we could operate an additional Ski Train for the next 50 years!

Will the “Rail to Vail” solve traffic congestion on I-70?  Clearly not.  The proponents freely admit this when questioned.  They just say: “We have to do something!”  They will tell you that widening the highway is the most expensive option, especially because of the need for an additional bore at the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels – but they won’t easily tell you how few people will actually ride the proposed train.

How do we solve traffic congestion on I-70? The answer lies in bringing the free market back into our transportation system.  When demand exceeds supply, there are two ways to handle the problem: queues or pricing.  If the demand is much higher than supply, and the queues (lines of people waiting) can become quite large.  Russians experienced this trying to get bread; Americans experience this on their highway systems.  Frankly, everyone is tired of the lines — so we need to deal with the pricing in order to restore operational efficiency on our highways without a Russian revolution.

The technology to solve traffic congestion has already been implemented and proven on SR 91 and I-15 in California.  In the last legislative session, Colorado embraced this technology, and has ordered CDOT to test it here within 3 years. It is called “HOT Lanes” or “High Occupancy Toll Lanes”.  The idea is to use a carpool lane more effectively by allowing single occupant cars to use the speedier HOV lanes for a toll. The technology involves variable priced tolling.  As traffic congestion increases, so does the price of the toll.  As prices rise, fewer people decide to use the toll lanes, thus assuring congestion-free driving for carpools and buses.  This technology can easily be applied to the I-70 corridor between Denver and Vail.  

Yes, there are details to be worked out, but if skiers and hikers know they will have to pay a toll during peak travel times, they may decide to carpool, take a bus or maybe ride the private Ski Train.  As long as people know that the tolls will be dedicated to adding additional highway capacity to alleviate future traffic congestion, most Coloradoans will be willing to pay reasonable tolls.

Stephen Mueller is a Senior Fellow in Transportation Policy with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.

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