Cheyenne sees opportunity in Amtrak partnership
CHEYENNE — It could take many years before a passenger rail stop comes back to Cheyenne, but the city is looking ahead at ways to make it happen eventually.
“From Cheyenne’s perspective, this is a really tremendous opportunity. Our economy is all about business up and down the Front Range,” Dale Steenbergen, CEO and President of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, said during a virtual roundtable discussion Monday morning hosted by Amtrak.
“All good economies are regional, and certainly our folks interact with Colorado – Colorado interacts with us,” he said. “In the future, that economy is going to be dependent on our ability to have people travel up and down the Front Range.”
Steenbergen said he’s been lobbying Amtrak to include Cheyenne in its expansion plan for several years, and called the inclusion of Wyoming’s capital city in broader conversation a “game-changer.”
Earlier this month, Amtrak released a proposal for expanding its passenger train services to some 160 cities, including Cheyenne. Amtrak is looking to partner with local, state and federal governments, as well as with the train companies that currently run on existing rails, to make it happen.
The virtual event, which Steenbergen joined from his office in Cheyenne’s long-defunct train depot, fostered a discussion among area stakeholders about building a passenger rail service from Pueblo, Colorado, to Cheyenne, which would mimic the high traffic I-25 corridor. Right now, that interstate and smaller state highways are the only way to travel through the Front Range, which includes major stops like Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and Cheyenne.
If widespread passenger rail service came to the area as an alternative for motorists, Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said the speed of the train would have to be competitive with driving time.
“If we’re going to make this type of investment, we need to make it really worthwhile and make sure it is a true alternative to getting in your vehicle,” he said.
Amtrak’s proposal comes in light of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which would use $2 trillion to improve American infrastructure. Some $80 billion of that would go toward Amtrak’s plan to build more routes in the coming years.
“Amtrak has an aggressive plan to seek additional resources so that we can invest in partnerships like the one between Colorado and Wyoming we’re talking about here today,” Gardner said, noting that the growing momentum to build a passenger rail service in Colorado and Wyoming will create the foundation for executing the company’s broader vision.
“Places like the Front Range (are) where America is growing, and that’s where we need to provide important service.”
Gardner added that America’s current economic picture is another reason Amtrak is interested in getting started on the project now.
“Coming out of the pandemic, as we all hope we are, there just isn’t a better time to be making big investments in our infrastructure,” Gardner said. “We can put people to work building equipment, building and developing stations and redeveloping communities.”
The timeline on the project is still uncertain – it could take several years to a decade or more to complete – but some of the required pre-environmental infrastructure work necessary to start it has already happened, said Sal Pace, vice chair of the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission.
“It depends on how quickly funding is secured,” Pace said. “I think we would start with some building blocks, and it would make sense to start north and south of Denver simultaneously.”
While other areas along the Front Range would be looking at building entirely new rail lines, passengers from Cheyenne, which operated passenger rail service up until the late 1970s, would utilize and existing rail line from Cheyenne to Denver, which now only carries freight.
In order to make it operable for passengers, the city would have to renovate or build a new train station and update some track signaling. Steenbergen said it would be funded through the Amtrak partnership, and he expects it “wouldn’t take too long.”
Nonetheless, the timeline for completing the rail from Cheyenne to Denver and beyond is still up in the air.
“In the best-case scenario, look at some of the existing projects they’ve already done with existing rails. They’ve got some of those up and running within four or five years,” Steenbergen told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle after the Amtrak media event. “The worst-case scenario is there’s a lot of spots where track has to be rebuilt to (meet) passenger qualifications. You could be looking at perhaps a 10- to 15-year horizon.”
Regardless of the timeline, Steenbergen said, bringing Amtrak to Cheyenne at some point in the future “is the right thing to do.”