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:

  1. US 36 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Phase 1 (slip ramps, pedestrian bridges) – 2010 COMPLETED
  2. West Rail Line – 2013 COMPLETED
  3. Denver Union Station – 2014
  4. Downtown Circulator – 2014
  5. Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility – 2014
  6. US 36 Expansion (includes BRT capability) – 2015
  7. East Rail Line – 2016
  8. Gold Line – 2016
  9. Northwest Rail Segment 1 – 2016
  10. I-225 Rail Line – 2016
  11. 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!