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Can Pueblo become a regional passenger hub?

City planner says Puebloans must get onboard now for possible future as a passenger rail hub.

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What will Pueblo look like in the future? More high-rise apartment buildings within the city limits, more pedestrian-friendly streets, and a possible trolley system – all in preparation for the city becoming a regional rail transportation center – or so is the vision of Bart Mikitowicz.

Mikitowicz, a city of Pueblo urban planner, emphasized that Pueblo must start building inward now in anticipation of the coming of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which might be rerouted starting at La Junta then west to Pueblo and then south to Trinidad, and the Front Range Rail, a proposed north-south passenger train route from Fort Collins to Trinidad.

“To quote Thomas Edison, ‘Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits,’” Mikitowicz said. “While we wait, we could be doubling efforts to increase infill redevelopment and high-density mixed residential development in the urban areas connected to our existing transit system and commercial corridors. We’d also want to continue to ratchet up the walkability of our pedestrian/tourist/civic/entertainment corridors.”

The first step

So what does Mikitowicz believe will be the first step toward Pueblo reaching its goal of becoming a regional transportation center? He thinks the city must educate its citizens about how passenger rail service will be used to maintain and enhance the city’s quality of life and the importance of Pueblo becoming a part of the statewide and interstate transportation infrastructure by “combating the nasty side effects of urban sprawl.”

Pueblo could be doubling its efforts to increase infill redevelopment and high-density mixed residential development in the urban areas connected to our existing transit system and commercial corridors. Find more information at their website

According to Mikitowicz, “As a community, we will need to remain committed. Ultimately, support and investment will drive the success of this project. Be sure that with an undertaking of this scale there will be bumps in the road, unanticipated costs, and headaches. That is why community consensus for this project will help maintain cooperation among our elected officials (at all levels of government), making them better equipped to navigate and negotiate the process as a team. However, passenger rail is not a panacea that will change Pueblo overnight, in fact, this project will take many years to complete.”

He added that now 94 percent of Puebloans drive to work and, as of October, there were only two residential units for sale in the downtown – “leaving us plenty of room for improvement in those areas.”

The trains

Mikitowicz explained the passenger rail project up for consideration falls under the purview of the Southwest Chief & Front Range Rail Commission, the group tasked with the identifying the logistics for how both passenger rail service plans can be put into place. The Southwest Chief, by example, is an east-to-west daily route that connects Los Angeles to Chicago that would bring, should it be rerouted, many travelers to the city. Mikitowicz’s understanding is that the Southwest Chief’s rerouting will come first, making it the first passenger rail to service Pueblo since 1971. He presumes the north to south route of the Front Range Rail will follow. Also, he said, the Southwest Chief and Front Range Rail will likely run parallel to each other from Pueblo to Trinidad.

Mikitowitz believes the Front Range Rail will use diesel trains at first traveling about 70 mph between stops. But he said the end goal of the Front Range system will be to switch the trains from running on diesel to electric power.

So, if the end goal is to use faster electric trains along the Front Range, why not skip the diesel trains and start the project with electric ones?

“[Electrifying] the whole corridor in the initial phase would be cost prohibitive,” Mikitowicz said. “However, I would happily be wrong if they [the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission] decided to do it all at once.”

Answers urgently needed

Pulp reported back in June that Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, in his role as the chairman of the state’s Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, said his rail commission received $8.7 million in funding from the state General Assembly in May, and Pace said that funding will be used to start the first phase of a five-phase plan to make the Front Range Rail a reality in the next 10 to 12 years.

Regardless of which comes first, the Southwest Chief or Front Range Rail, Mikitowicz said there are questions that need answering about Pueblo’s inner-city development. “Do we use the same terminal for both services? Do we have multiple terminals? How can this opportunity be utilized to enhance our existing transit system? Is this a potential opportunity for reinstating trolley or small-scale light-rail service to improve connectivity with passenger rail? Do we account for emerging transit technologies like Loop? These variables are currently being studied by WSP Consultants and paid for by the Pueblo Area Council of Governments. It is part of a broader study on track conditions by the Southwest Chief & Front Range [Passenger] Rail Commission, that is needed to move this project into its final phases of development.”

Are we big enough?

Would Pueblo’s population generate enough ridership to justify it becoming a regional transportation center? Mikitowicz believes it will.

“According to the Inter-regional Connectivity Study completed in 2014, at full build-out, Pueblo would have between 700,000 [and] 800,000 passengers boarding annually,” he said. “The project has been deemed feasible and is moving forward. However, how quickly it moves forward may be a different matter. There are a few things to consider here related to Pueblo.”

Mikitowicz explained that potential ridership is not based solely on the population of the city of Pueblo. Because Pueblo has been designated as a future regional transportation hub for Southern Colorado, the ridership estimate also considers people who will commute to Pueblo from the surrounding areas to use the passenger rail service. Regardless of whether passenger rail service comes, he said, population projections for Pueblo over the next 20 years suggest a near doubling of current residents with a parallel increase in traffic congestion.

“Driving this future development inward towards the core rather than letting it sprawl throughout the county will combat that future congestion, make expanding future transit service more feasible, … add vitality to streets, and [allow] customers to grow local retail and restaurants,” he said. “Even beyond that, high-urban densities produce positive data that larger developers use to determine where to invest their capital when looking for projects.”

Ultimately, government support and private investment will drive the success of Pueblo’s transition to a passenger rail center, according to Mikitowicz. Once a passenger rail terminal site or sites are selected, he said, city officials need to review zoning codes and policies relative to the area or areas selected for the terminals.

“Agreements will likely be needed between the private and public stakeholders that establish how the system will be operated, maintained, secured, etc.,” he said.

Public input

Mikitowicz urges Puebloans to get involved in the planning process as the early phases of the process rely heavily on community input. He said the region is currently updating its bike and pedestrian plan, long-range transportation plan, and neighborhood plans, along with an update to the Regional Comprehensive Plan.

“Together these plans shape the character for Pueblo’s future development,” he said. “In the end, our updated plans should reflect an organized, intuitive, and understandable guide for future development that maximizes our investments in both our built environment and transportation network.”

What if trains don’t come?

Of course, all these plans rely on passenger train service coming to Pueblo, or do they?  As for the Southwest Chief, Amtrak’s Chicago spokesman Marc Maglikri said plans to route the Southwest Chief through Pueblo are “still alive,” adding that “service to Pueblo is still an idea worth considering.” He said the original route for the Southwest Chief was laid out in the early 1970s and it did not account for the population growth in Pueblo and Colorado Springs this century. Although the fate of the existing Southwest Chief route now is in the hands of a joint congressional committee, Maglikri is confident Congress will allow the route to remain in place as is, adding that what he called Pueblo’s “gorgeous station” (Union Depot) could someday have Amtrak trains stopping there.

But what if the Southwest Chief does not come to Pueblo and the Front Range Passenger Rail proposal fizzles. Mikitowicz then points to the already publicly funded Bustang bus routes, which currently link the Steel City to Alamosa and Lamar. Mikitowicz said tickets for Bustang cost roughly half the price of its competitor, Greyhound. Further, Michael Timlin, bus operations manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said Bustang plans to offer a Pueblo-to-Colorado Springs-to-Denver route coming this January.

“The plan is to extend one Bustang trip to Pueblo,” he said, adding the bus will leave Pueblo at roughly 6:45 a.m. and arrive in downtown Colorado Springs at about 7:45 a.m. and then continue to Denver. The bus will leave Denver at roughly 3:15 p.m. and arrive in Colorado Springs at about 5:30 p.m. and then arrive in Pueblo around 6:15 p.m.

“Also [starting Dec. 15] the Bustang Outrider that operates between Lamar and Pueblo will extend to Colorado Springs late in the morning,” Timlin said. “Then it will return 2:30-ish [p.m.] to Pueblo and continue on to Lamar at 3:30 p.m.

So if passenger trains are not in Pueblo’s future, then buses will be.

Cars vs. trains

Pulp reported in July that New Mexico’s Rail Runner, a passenger rail service that connects Albuquerque to Santa Fe, was running in the red in part because there was no public transportation at the railroad terminals (a problem Mikitowicz seems determined to get Pueblo to solve), and in part because commuters in New Mexico did not want to abandon their autos to use a train that travels at 70 mph and makes too many stops.

Mikitowicz seems confident that the passenger rail services coming to Pueblo will serve as enough of enticement for Puebloans to leave their cars parked.

“It is important to remember, just because some individuals have the luxury of being able to drive a car to Denver, many people are too old to drive, don’t own a car, don’t have a license, can’t drive, don’t want to drive, want another option,” he said. “Other people … prefer not to sit in traffic; understand the safety and environmental benefits; dislike the liability of driving; [would] rather be reading a book, watching a movie, doing homework, or drinking a six-pack rather than adding miles and wear-and-tear on their personal vehicle. The point being, yes, some people probably will be hesitant to use … the train until it travels at a more fantastical speed, however, the value is in breaking through from nothing to something. The service has a critical role to play in diminishing future interstate congestion and increasing mobility options for all Coloradans and tourists.”

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