After nearly two decades of discussion, passenger rail along the Front Range is chugging its way toward reality. Not only did the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) earmark $500,000 in seed money late last year to jump-start construction of the Front Range Passenger Rail project, there’s talk that a proposed tax increase to help fund the operation could land on the 2024 ballot in counties along the I-25 corridor.

The proposed rail project is a biggie: It would span 173 miles and 13 counties and run like a spine up the Front Range, linking Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins. The passenger trains, which are projected to carry more than 2 million passengers per year, would initially run on existing freight tracks before transitioning, mostly, to their own tracks in freight corridors. The cost to build such a service is estimated well into the billions of dollars, and Governor Jared Polis has advocated for getting the issue on ballots in the Front Range as soon as possible.

Supporters contend that rail is desperately needed in a growing state and could offer a quick link to economic hubs along the Front Range for those without a vehicle. The USDOT sees passenger rail in places like Colorado as a lynchpin in the creation of a national pipeline of rail projects.

Randal O’Toole, an economist and transportation policy center director at the Colorado-based Independence Institute, disagrees. “Front Range rail will probably end badly,” says O’Toole, a self-described rail historian who was a leading voice against the metro area’s FasTracks rail-expansion project in the early 2000s. “It’s all very predictable.”

In a conversation with 5280, O’Toole discussed the proposed rail project and similar undertakings nationwide that he says prove Colorado’s passenger rail aspirations will fall flat.

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Randal O’Toole
Randal O’Toole. Photo courtesy of Independence Institute

5280: You’ve studied rail, in all its forms, for most of your adult life. Do you see benefits of high-speed rail in a place like Colorado?
Randal O’Toole: None, really. The benefit is to political egos. That’s it. These are ego projects. High-speed rail doesn’t provide a transportation service that we don’t already have. For long distances, planes are better. They’re faster and cheaper. For short distances, cars are better. They’re more convenient and cheaper. There are also buses.

There’s also no real market in Colorado for it. Back in 2009, the Obama administration published a map of high-speed rail lines it wanted to fund. It included Seattle to Portland, Los Angeles to San Francisco, and Atlanta to Houston. It didn’t have a single line in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming—nowhere in the Rocky Mountain West. Why? There wasn’t a market.

High-speed rail, if it’s going to make sense at all, is going in a place like Los Angeles to San Francisco, where you have 50 million people in the corridor. It’s not going to make sense in a place where you’ve got 5 million people in a corridor.

The Front Range Passenger Rail is advertising maximum speeds between 90 and 125 mph. Is this a realistic estimate in your opinion?
The average speed in Colorado is going to be a lot less than what’s been advertised. We always hear 110 mph trains or 150 mph trains, but that’s the top speed. The average speed is going to be a lot less, especially when you have stops in between. The trains cruise along at 90 mph and then speed up on one section. In reality, this would not be a super-fast train.

If this rail project doesn’t meet its estimated ridership level, what’s likely to happen?
One of the catches that comes with federal funding for any project like this is that you can’t just build it and say, “Oh, it failed, and we’ve stopped running it.” You have to run it for 30 years or you pay the federal government back. This is the money the government gave you to build it. You’re pretty much obligated to run it for 30 years, even if nobody’s riding it. And ridership is always overestimated.

California officials said their rail was going to make an operating profit. They said it was going to make enough of a profit that they could get private investors to put money into it. Not a lot of money, but something like $5 billion. So they thought they could get some private investor to put up $5 billion and then give the train to them and let them run it at a profit.

The project was originally supposed to cost $20 billion. But then it was $30 billion. And now it’s around $100 billion. Needless to say, rail there never found a single private investor because their revenue projections were based on an assumption that they would carry 30 million passengers a year.

Freight train yard in Colorado Springs
Freight train yard in Colorado Springs. Getty Images

Is there a place in the U.S. where you think rail has worked?
That would be Brightline, which goes from Miami to Orlando. They used existing tracks from Miami to Cocoa Beach, and they built new tracks from Cocoa Beach to Orlando. They’re what some people call “higher-speed trains.” Between Miami and Cocoa Beach, they go about 79 mph. They might get up to 110 mph.

About $1 billion was spent from Cocoa Beach to Orlando. I predicted that it was going to be a success. A lot of people like to go to Orlando because there are theme parks there, and 10 million people a year are loading cruise ships in Miami, Cape Canaveral, and Fort Lauderdale. The train goes right to the cruise ship docks. That’s a winner.

What’s different about the Front Range rail?
How many people in Fort Collins want to go to Pueblo? Not that many. The idea that we should go out and spend billions of dollars to take a handful of people from Fort Collins to Pueblo doesn’t make sense. There’s going to be a whole lot of money spent to build a train that’s not going to be competitive against driving. They won’t get many riders.

And then, of course, the people in charge of this will say, “We didn’t get many riders because we didn’t spend enough. We need to spend a lot more to build new tracks that are exclusively for passengers.” And then they’re going to ask for even more money.

Estimates to build the Front Range project vary widely, but I’ve seen figures as high as $12 billion. Does this number seem realistic?
There’s no way. From Fort Collins to Pueblo, you’re probably looking at close to $20 billion. They’re always optimistic, whether it’s deliberate because they want to fool you into supporting it or it’s accidental because the people who made the projections are guilty of optimism bias, I don’t know.

What do you think the real cost of the Front Range project will be?
The cost is $100 million per mile.

Indonesia just opened one, and it cost $89 million a mile. If a developing country with low wages can’t spend less than California, what do you think Colorado is going to do? Why is it going to be any less in Colorado?

What is your assessment of RTD’s FasTracks, which voters approved in 2004?
We were told there were going to be a whole bunch of rail lines in Denver, and that ridership is going to shoot up, and the rail lines will only cost $4 billion. Well, they cost twice as much.

They didn’t even complete one of the lines. And in the year 2000—before Metro Denver’s Transportation Expansion Project was complete, before any of the rail lines except for the Santa Fe line was done—4.8 percent of Denver area commuters took transit to work. In 2019, all the lines were done except for the Longmont line, and they were operating as busy as they could. What was the percentage of commuters taking transit to work? It was 4.8 percent. FasTracks did nothing to change anybody’s transportation habits.

Do you think FasTracks is a warning that a Front Range passenger rail wouldn’t be as successful as supporters are saying?
It’s not just FasTracks—it’s all over the country. Intercity rail lines and urban transit rail lines have always underestimated cost and overestimated ridership, but they still get built.

If enough people want to ride a bus, then do that. And if there is no private service, it’s probably a pretty good signal that there aren’t enough people to justify a bus, much less enough people to justify a train.

Randal O’Toole, center, debates Cal Marsella, right, on the future of FasTracks at the Channel 12 KBDI studios in Denver for host John Caldara’s, left, show in 2007.
Randal O’Toole, center, debates Cal Marsella, right, on the future of FasTracks at the Channel 12 KBDI studios in Denver for host John Caldara’s, left, show in 2007. Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

If this project, ahem, goes off the rails, what will be the first signals?
You’ll hear officials say, “Oops, the costs went up. Nobody expected this, but costs went up.” This is what happened after FasTracks.

I debated Cal Marsella, who was the head of RTD, several times. I would say, “You know, there are going to be cost overruns.” It was always, “Oh, no. We’re never going to have any cost overruns.” But then as soon as it was passed, it was, “Oops, China is ordering a lot of steel and cement that we didn’t expect. Nobody could have anticipated this.” I debated him on it, and he denied it was going to happen. And of course, it did. So that’s the first thing that’s going to happen.

You’re painting a bleak picture of high-speed rail in Colorado, like the Titanic about to hit the iceberg.
People are seeing high-speed rail through rose-colored glasses. They see the iceberg, and think, Oh, boy, we can have iced tea. And just think of all the jobs that’ll be created patching up the hole in the boat.

Randal O’Toole is the transportation policy center director at the Independence Institute. He is an economist who has written five books on land-use and transportation issues. He’s worked for environmental groups opposing big-government subsidies to corporations that were doing harm to the environment and free-market groups opposing environmental groups that support big-government subsidies to corporations that are doing harm to the environment.