Now that the West Rail Line is open and FasTracks has moved back into the limelight, a lot of you may be asking “what’s next?” Billions of dollars of public transit investment buys a lot – it’s time to take a look at what’s on the horizon for the largest infrastructure investment ever undertaken by metro Denver voters.
For those looking for a little context or those who are new to town (it’s ok, don’t be embarrassed), FasTracks was approved in 2004 by 58% of metro Denver voters. The plan authorized a sales tax increase of 0.4%, bringing the RTD tax from its previous 0.6% to a full 1% (equating to 10 cents for every 10 dollars). 0.6% of that sales tax is reserved for base system expenditures (existing buses and light rail trains, maintenance, etc.) and the new 0.4% was reserved for the FasTracks expansion project. The dollars cannot be transferred from base system projects to FasTracks and vice versa to help ensure that the base system would never be compromised to expand the system even farther while the FasTracks projects were protected by raids by the base system in the event of a drastic sales tax downturn (which we saw in 2009).
As seen in the map above, the FasTracks project included six new rail corridors (three light rail, three commuter rail), extensions to the (at the time) three existing corridors, over 21,000 new parking spaces, redevelopment of Denver Union Station into a multi-modal transit hub for the region, and a realignment of the RTD bus network dubbed FastConnects. The plan was to complete all of these components for $4.7 billion by 2017. FasTracks was a lofty and admirable goal. Obviously, a lot of controversy and conversation followed the revelation that FasTracks could not completed for the cost promised in 2004. That number has since increased to more than $6.5 billion. The scheduled completion of some components have even been pushed out to 2044 – 27 years later than expected. The exact reasons for that increase have also been well documented and will be the subject of a future post.
But moving on to better news – construction! It’s been almost nine years since FasTracks was approved by voters. So…what’s going on? The honest answer is A LOT.
- RTD has 68 miles of rail (both light rail and commuter rail) under construction or under contract for construction, not to mention the 12.1 miles of the West Rail Line which opened last week. BILLIONS of dollars have been spent with billions more to go and thousands of people are hard at work on the multiple elements of FasTracks. Thousands have already benefited from this investment – and that’s before most corridors are even open.
- Denver Union Station (nearly $500 million in construction) will be complete in May of 2014. DUS includes a new light rail station (complete), a new 22-bay underground bus terminal, and a new commuter rail terminal. The historic Denver Union Station building at 17th and Wynkoop Streets is also being transformed into a hotel. This new hotel will open sometime later next year.
- The $2 billion Eagle Project (includes the East Rail Line, Gold Line, the first segment of the Northwest Rail Line, and the commuter rail maintenance facility) is under construction. The project is the first transit public-private partnership in the nation and received a $1.03 billion Full Funding Grant Agreement in 2011 from the US Department of Transportation.
- The I-225 Rail Line is under construction by Kiewit Construction who submitted an unsolicited proposal to RTD in 2012.
- The North Metro Rail Line will be constructed to 72nd Avenue. An unsolicited proposal was submitted in early 2013, which RTD deemed to have technical merit. The exact specifics of that proposal, including cost or which station the proposal would build to, have not been made public.
- The Northwest Area Mobility Study (NAMS) is underway to “develop consensus among RTD, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and corridor stakeholders on cost-effective mobility improvements to serve the northwest area. The analysis should provide RTD with a prioritized list of improvements which will have the support of all interested parties.”
That may seem like a lot of work – and it is. But make no mistake, there’s a lot left to do. The Northwest Rail Line from Denver to Boulder and Longmont, the Central Corridor Extension north along Downing to connect to the East Rail Line, the Southeast Rail Extenstion to Lone Tree, and the Southwest Rail Extension to Highlands Ranch are still in the works, but not funded. The future of these projects in the short-term remains up in the air. However, RTD is committed to completing ALL elements of the FasTracks project. Unsolicited proposals or other potential funding opportunities could always change the status of these unfunded projects. The North Metro and I-225 Rail Lines have both received unsolicited proposals and RTD has been at the forefront of engaging the private sector to help complete projects – there’s definitely interest out there.
When can we expect to see more projects complete? That’s a mighty fine question! Let’s take a look at the FasTracks schedule rundown:
- US 36 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Phase 1 (slip ramps, pedestrian bridges) – 2010 COMPLETED
- West Rail Line – 2013 COMPLETED
- Denver Union Station – 2014
- Downtown Circulator – 2014
- Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility – 2014
- US 36 Expansion (includes BRT capability) – 2015
- East Rail Line – 2016
- Gold Line – 2016
- Northwest Rail Segment 1 – 2016
- I-225 Rail Line – 2016
- North Metro to National Western Stock Show and 72nd Avenue – 2018
Not everybody agrees that FasTracks is a wise investment, and that’s to be expected. Multiple articles have been written (seemingly constantly) about how its a waste of taxpayers dollars, a boondoggle, or an investment in expensive technology and infrastructure that doesn’t justify its cost. FasTracks is a massive project – it’s bound to be controversial, yet everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Many people said the same thing about Denver International Airport in the early 1990s. We had an airport promised to be built for $3 billion which ended up costing nearly $5 billion – not to mention it was years behind schedule. I don’t think many can disagree that its economic impact on not only Denver, but Colorado as a whole, has been extremely positive. I’m not suggesting that FasTracks will have an impact similar to DIA – it’ll have a MAJOR impact, but not solely financial. This will fundamentally alter how thousands of us move on a daily basis, not to mention the environmental, economic development, and travel time savings benefits.
Infrastructure is complicated. It takes time. It is complex. FasTracks still has a ways to go before its full impacts can be felt. The West Rail Line (now known as the W-Line) is the first of what will be several major steps for the entire metro area. It’s taken a lot of money and energy to get where we are today, and we still have a long ways to go.
Get ready for a very exciting next five years for metro Denver!
Regionalism is great, but denver really needs to find a way to fund multi-modal transportation that serves its inner neighborhoods. Maybe Hancock can use the downtown TIF money to fund dedicated bus lanes and cycletracks rather than building more parking garages.
With RTD being the only entity (and a regional entity) capable of kick starting such a mass transportation initiative, it almost has to start at the outside and work its way in. Have no fear, the inner neighborhood lines will follow once the system is up and running and people start demanding better connections. Now as to who builds it and what it looks like…your guess is as good as mine.
Politically speaking, it’s interesting to note that Dallas brags it has the most light rail miles. Salt Lake City has the most rail transit per capita of any city which includes light, commuter, and streetcar. SLC also has BRT.
The jewel that sets Denver apart is the Union Station transit hub. Definitely a home run and within walking distance of Coors Field.
Certainly the political stars were aligned for Denver at the most opportune time.
For quite conservative cities, Dallas and SLC have built good passenger rail systems. Once Denver’s is completed it will be very expansive, serving nearly the entire metro area. You’re right, Union Station will be the jewel that sets our system apart from the rest. I like that we will have lightrail and EMU commuter trains. To really complete our system we need streetcars as well. When I am in Dallas I enjoy the free heritage trolley along Mockingbird (I think?). It doesn’t really serve as mass transit, but it is charming. Streetcars along E. Colfax, Broadway, to Cherry Creek, and into the Highlands would really compliment lightrail and buses.
McKinney Avenue Transit Authority
Is there any progress on streetcars for Denver? I see alot of other cities building streetcar lines and I feel Denver is lagging. Also, does anyone know of the status of the streetcar proposals for Colorado Springs and Boulder?
It doesn’t seem like Mayor Hancock is nearly as progressive and visionary as Hickenlooper was.
Greetings from Atlanta! :/
I’ve been halfway following transit development in Denver for a long time– since the mid ’70’s– though with more interest lately since my college-aged daughter announced her intention to move there in the near future. I’m always happy to see transit moving forward, but after seeing (at http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1208325 ) the light rail system map after the opening of the West Line, I started looking at Denver’s system more closely. two things tripped my WTF meter:
First, all west line trains will go to Union Station. Moreover, as depicted at https://denverurbanism.com/2011/07/auraria-west-campus-station-area-infrastructure-reconfiguration.html , the wyes that would’ve allowed direct light rail service in any direction were removed (east) or not built (west) so that Auraria West station could be exactly where it is.
Second, and more important, the LRT Union Station is three blocks away from the commuter rail/Amtrak/BRT Union Station, even though the entire are around and between them is being redeveloped, and even though (I surmise) there’ll be direct BRT access into Union Station. WTF? Why on earth wasn’t the LRT extended another three blocks to put the LRT station right next to the rail/bus station? Riders from the commuter rail and BRT who want to take LRT to the west or south side will have to walk three blocks exposed to the weather. And what about disabled/elderly riders, or those with small children or carrying something heavy?
Finally, while the very important 16th Street Shuttle has a convenient turnaround adjacent to the LRT station, riders from the rail/BRT station will apparently have to cross 16th Street to board the shuttle. Surely a single turnaround serving a consolidated Union Station would’ve been a better plan.
Am I being too critical, or is there a major screwup in progress ?
Hi Tom. Thanks for your comment!
The Union Station Transit District is comprised of three elements, the Light Rail Station, the underground Regional Bus Facility, and the Commuter Rail/Amtrak Station. The distance between the Light Rail platforms and the Commuter Rail platforms is 800 feet–not three blocks. That distance, 150-feet shorter than one-half the length of the A/B/C/D/E concourses at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, can be traversed one of three ways: 1.) Walk at street level through the 17th Street Gardens, 2.) Take the Mall Shuttle from the Light Rail Station to the next stop at the end of the Commuter Rail station (roughly 16th and Wewatta), or 3.) Go into the Chestnut Pavilion at the Light Rail Station and walk underground through the Pedestrian Concourse inside the Bus Facility, emerging up into the Wewatta Pavilion directly next to the Commuter Rail Station or up into the Union Station Pavilion right at the door to the historic station. The underground bus facility stretches the entire length of the transit district–it’s below both the Light Rail and Commuter Rail stations. Based on the average adult walking speed of 3 MPH, the time to walk from Light Rail to Commuter Rail is approximately 3-4 minutes.
As I alluded to above, there will be a 16th Street Mall Shuttle stop directly at the end of the Commuter Rail Station (roughly 16th and Wewatta), 175 feet from the end of the Commuter Rail platforms, so boarding the Mall Shuttle from the Commuter Rail trains will be a snap.
As to why everything isn’t all stacked on top of each other right behind the historic station… not only did that plan alternative have an approximate $1 billion price tag that the project couldn’t afford, but it ultimately had engineering issues that the federal government nixed due to safety issues. There’s no room for the Light Rail, which crosses over 15th Street and Cherry Creek just one block south of the Light Rail Station, to do a sharp turn and get closer to the Commuter Rail Station without some major restructuring of the whole street grid just for a few hundred feet. Also, RTD has determined that a fraction (less than 10%) of travelers will actually be making the Light Rail-to-Commuter Rail mode transfer. Most people will be arriving/departing via one mode or the other to or from Downtown as a pedestrian or via the Mall Shuttle.
The Union Station Transit District plan also includes a new 16th Street Mall Shuttle-like service called the Downtown Circulator, a major bicycle facility, space for taxis and pedicabs, and three major public plazas. I hope that explanation helps.
If you come out to Denver to visit your daughter, I’d be happy to give you a tour of the whole area. It’s very exciting!
Thanks for your detailed reply. I still think that 800 feet is too far, but the underground concourse makes it better. And perhaps someday I’ll take you up on your tour offer. 🙂
Ken, thanks for the rundown on how Union Station will function, multi-modal. You’re so right -this is a many-layered, complicated project, with a lot of thoughtful planning. And thanks, Ryan, for the terrific story and pictures. Build-out will take at least 5, maybe 10 more years for all the sites, and most of the rail lines. But the overall design really magnifies Union Station as the crossroads of Denver, a constant mix of people on the move. Travel by Train…