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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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FasTimes at Mile High

Ambitious Expansion of Denver Area Commuter Rail Service on Track

By Greg Henry

All Photos Courtesy of RTD

Union Station, a commuter hub located in downtown Denver,

is set to receive a $500 million overhaul.

The largest mass transit project in the country is scheduled to start in full this summer in Denver. Once complete, the ambitious FasTracks program is expected to add 119 miles of new commuter and light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) service to the Denver metro area.

Imagine thousands of Denver Broncos fans, clad in orange and blue, rooting their team to a fifth Super Bowl championship with future Hall of Famer Jay Cutler leading the way—and they’re all packed on commuter or light rail cars from every suburb.

Well, at least the commuter rail project is a reality.

According to U.S. Census figures, the Denver metro population was 1.98 million in 1990, and that figure grew to nearly 2.6 million in 2000. Estimates by the Denver Regional Council of Governments claim the seven-county metro Denver area will grow to 3 million by 2015 and 3.8 million by 2030.

Much of Denver’s growth has come in Lower Downtown—or LoDo—where lofts and condos were developed in converted warehouses or by new construction. LoDo growth was spurred by the 1995 opening of Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, Denver’s Major League Baseball team. The Pepsi Center, home of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the host of the 2008 Democratic convention, opened in 1999 and led to more residential and business projects along the Platte River Valley.

Like many major American cities, suburban flight from Denver’s core soared in the 1960s through the oil-bust ‘80s. The main arteries for cars failed to keep up with that population growth. Interstate 70 remains the most utilized east-west route across the city’s north edge with three lanes in both directions, but an elevated portion east of Interstate 25 needs work estimated at $200 million to $500 million, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. U.S. Highway 6 (Sixth Avenue) takes commuters from the western suburbs to downtown Denver. The north-south commute via car may be worse. I-25 remains the most-traveled route, carving a swath from as far south as Castle Rock through the Denver Tech Center, where thousands of commuters are employed by insurance companies, hotels and Denver’s claim to fame, cable television entities.

Denver’s light-rail history began with the Central line in 1994, connecting a major bus stop at I-25 and Broadway with downtown (see sidebar). The Southwest line followed in 2000, connecting Denver’s southwest suburbs with downtown. The Southeast line added service to the south and southeast corridors in 2006. The FasTracks project is adding to the existing services over an eight-year construction period in hopes to alleviate the traffic woes caused by Denver’s past and future growth, said Cal Marsella, general manager of Denver’s Regional Transportation District.

“People won’t take public transit if it takes you 50 minutes to get to work on a bus that would only take 30 or 35 minutes to drive,” Marsella said. “It doesn’t make any sense. But, as we build these rail lines, we create opportunities for people [to get to work in less time].”

An RTD spokesperson said 18.9 million people rode Denver’s light rail trains from September 2006 to September 2007. In the 10 months since the Southeast line opened in November 2006, that line had 7.8 million riders, according to RTD figures. The RTD anticipated 33,000 average weekday ridership on the Southeast line, but actual figures were nearly 36,000. The entire line averaged more than 63,000 riders on weekdays.

A Southeast line train pulls up to the Lincoln Station stop

in Lone Tree.

The Southeast line, at peak hours, often is standing room only for commuters. Many riders have taken to commuting from the line’s first stop, the Nine Mile Park-N-Ride in Aurora, where the H line originates. The two-story Nine Mile parking garage fills by 8 a.m. most days, and according to several RTD figures, is the most used lot on the light rail system.

FasTracks, approved as a $4.7 billion project by voters in Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Douglas and Jefferson counties in 2004, will extend the city’s rail system into six new corridors, and Union Station, a downtown railway hub, will get a $500 million overhaul. It also extends the Southeast light rail line along Interstate 225, completing the highway-light rail route to the north and connecting with the East corridor system that will run to Denver International Airport, 25 miles northeast of downtown. The bulk of construction begins this summer, but phase 1 of BRT service from Denver northwest to downtown Boulder started in 2007. Engineering and construction work on BRT is slated to be completed by the end of this year. Phase 2 construction is not expected to begin until 2012 with a 2016 completion date.

The project links riders from the northwest metro area (Boulder, Broomfield, Longmont, Loveland, Westminster), north corridor (Brighton, Thornton, Northglenn, Commerce City), the west side (Arvada, Wheat Ridge, Lakewood, Golden) with two rail lines and the east corridor (Aurora, Denver International Airport) to downtown Denver.

Building Support

The plan is decades in the making. A Guide to the Ride election proposing a similar system failed in 1997, with 58 percent of voters against it. Seven years later, the result was nearly reversed, with 57 percent approving FasTracks.

The 1997 election loss taught Marsella and the RTD board a serious lesson: Sell the plan to the public and private sectors, and unite the RTD board. By 2004, a united RTD board was in place and local lobbying firm CRL & Associates was hired to promote FasTracks. Marsella and his staff got a head start pushing the plan with government leaders, business owners, developers, chambers of commerce, citizens groups and other interested parties, marketing the project’s effect on the quality of life in each corridor. By election day, Marsella said, word had spread, thanks to a $3.5 million FasTracks campaign and a lot of legwork. Spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said the Guide to the Ride election campaign spent only $800,000 in 1997.

“I was liked a caged animal [in 1997], but during FasTracks I made hundreds, if not thousands, of presentations to every Kiwanis club, Knights of Columbus, Rotary Club, you name it,” Marsella said.

Part of the extensive planning included working with the Denver Regional Council of Governments and various chambers of commerce. DRCOG promotes cooperation among the 52 county and municipal governments in metro Denver. Finding common ground among municipalities convinced 31 mayors in metro Denver to back the FasTracks program. That, said then-Lakewood Mayor Steve Burkholder, went a long way in getting the transit plan approved.

“Let me assure it wasn’t backroom politics; it was a matter of sitting down and respecting the mayors’ opinions,” said Burkholder, who ended two terms in office in November. “The success of FasTracks was that we involved so many people, from the business community to environmental groups to small businesses and citizens who lived along the line. We stuck to our message—it creates choice and job growth—whenever an issue came up.”

Jobs and growth were issues the chambers of commerce and business leaders could understand, and they in turn had influence with the mayors, Marsella noted.

“Part of the reason was everybody understood the plan,” Marsella said. “There were some individual mayors who may have thought the project didn’t help their city as much as others, but they backed it because they understood the project and knew it would be for the greater good of everybody.”

According to polling results released by the RTD in December, 79 percent of metro area residents said that approving FasTracks funding in 2004 was a good decision, and 75 percent were confident that RTD would complete the FasTracks plan.

FasTracks also will connect Denver’s growing downtown population to suburban delights, such as the Butterfly Pavilion invertebrate zoo in Westminster, shopping malls (Flatirons in Broomfield, Park Meadows in Lone Tree), Coors Brewery tours in Golden and the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Surmounting Obstacles

There have been bumps in the road, though. Rising costs of materials, especially steel, copper and concrete, the backbone of the construction process, increased FasTracks’ price tag. Costs to purchase land for right-of-way use of the rail lines also are increasing. The estimated cost of the project originally was $4.7 billion. the figure voters approved in 2004. By the fall of 2007, that figure had risen to $6.1 billion.

A light rail train picks up passengers at the Auraria

West Campus station in Denver.

To cut $1.4 billion, Marsella and the RTD board are considering public-private partnerships on parts of the commuter rail system. An RTD spokesperson said financial advisers estimate private firms will save $550 million for FasTracks from an expected 10 percent savings on the construction of rail lines and a commuter rail maintenance facility, and a 15 percent savings from operating and maintaining them. Marsella contended RTD will maintain oversight setting fares and providing quality service.

The private-public partnership is no new idea. The $1.75 billion Transportation Expansion plan (T-REX), coordinated by RTD and the Colorado Department of Transportation, was able to save money and finish on time by using a design-build method through the private sector. T-REX, completed in the fall of 2006, expanded lanes on Interstate 25 from downtown Denver to its southern suburbs, while adding a 16-mile Southeast light rail line.

Other challenges, as of this writing, still had not been ironed out. RTD mailed preliminary notices of intent to buy property along at least one corridor, RTD spokesman Scott Reed told the Rocky Mountain News in October. Land owners threatened litigation. Business owner Galen Foster called RTD’s letter of intent “an old-fashioned claim jump” and instead wanted to work with RTD to redevelop the property. If not, he vowed a lengthy legal battle, telling the News, “They call it FasTracks? We’ll turn it into slow tracks.” RTD hoped to amicably buy property along rail lines, without having to invoke eminent domain.

Clean Machines

Although almost all of the design work is complete, there are some issues with local authorities in west and northwest Denver over rail lines, placing maintenance facilities, time schedules, use of diesel cars over electric and the flexibility in the future to switch to hybrid or clean-air technology.

Use of clean-burning diesel was approved unanimously in October after RTD board member John Tayer proposed a “responsible rail amendment.” Tayer’s two provisions addressed fuel efficiency, low emissions and allowed for flexibility for system advancements, and would require RTD to address noise concerns of residents near the rails. Marsella said RTD wants “to make it a criterion that [FasTracks] will be making an environmental impact. We want to be able to adapt those units to hydrogen fuel cells and solar.”

The former Lakewood Mayor Burkholder, who calls himself a moderate on politics, is an avid supporter of FasTracks, despite its challenges and cost overruns.

“Change is always traumatic, particularly in our west corridor where the right-of-way is close to a lot of residential properties,” Burkholder said of his area, one of the first scheduled to have its FasTracks projects completed in 2012. “But we are doing some things in our corridor that they learn from when they get to the other corridors.”

A National Model

Other cities are learning from Denver’s plan. Not only are Marsella and his RTD employees busy implementing FasTracks, but they are getting visits from officials from cities across the country to discuss how their areas can benefit from mass transit.

“We really have been a model for many cities,” said Marsella. “In one week, I’ve had people come see me from Detroit, Birmingham, Ala., Oklahoma City and Charlotte. Tampa is desperate for a mass transit system. Everybody wants to learn and they say, ‘We want to be where you are.’”

“We get visited by [city officials] and they all ask the same question: ‘How did you pull this off?’ My usual answer is that we didn’t recreate the wheel. We went to the 30-year vision we already had in place with the DRCOG and looked at the corridors that they anticipated the most growth. We just told ourselves, this is where growth was planned and that’s where we should build.”

By 2016, that plan and Denver’s mass transit system will be a lot closer to where it wants to be.

Greg Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Denver.

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