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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

September 2006

Rail News: Passenger Rail

FasTrack 2017: Denver RTD is setting the stage for future development in the Mile High City


By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Cal Marsella's third-floor office is filled with photos capturing key moments in the Regional Transportation District of Denver's (RTD) history and rows of file cabinets brimming with agency documents. But his most prized possession is propped up against a wall near the conference table: a blown-up, poster-board-sized map of what the RTD system will look like after it's expanded. For the 30-year transit veteran who's spent the past 11 years as RTD's general manager, the map is more than the reference he uses to point out the various lines and stations that make up the agency's service expansion plans. It shows the magnitude of what Marsella & Co. are trying to accomplish.

"When I get the luxury to step back and look at the forest through the trees, we're building an entire rapid-transit system in the metro region," says Marsella with a big grin. "That's enormous."

The impact the rail expansion will have on the entire metropolitan area is pretty enormous, too. It doesn't take more than a rush-hour cruise — or rather, crawl — along one of Denver's jam-packed four-lane interstates to see that the Mile High City is plagued by the same bumper-to-bumper traffic all large cities suffer from during peak commute periods. The mountainous terrain and sprawling metropolitan area make the region one of the country's most automobile dependent — and, now, one of the most congested.

That's a big problem for Denver and surrounding community officials, who have spent the better part of two decades working to not only recover from an economic low, but make a name for Denver as a premiere place to live, work and play.

Once home to many oil and gas company headquarters, Denver sank into a severe recession in the 1980s when crude oil prices plummeted. For awhile, the city had the highest office vacancy rate in the nation. Residents left the region in search of greener pastures.

Alive and Well

Denver since has transformed itself into one of the country's top business, cultural and sports centers. During the past 15 years, the city has opened a new convention center; the country's largest airport (in terms of square miles and capacity for growth); the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field; basketball, hockey, arena football, lacrosse and entertainment venue the Pepsi Center; and the Denver Broncos' Invesco Field. And in nearby Aurora, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and University of Colorado Hospital are in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar project to redevelop the former Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center into the country's largest medical and biotech research center.

"All of this is part of our effort to become a world-class city," says Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

So far, the efforts have paid off. Population lost in the 1980s is back in a big way — 2.5 million people call the Denver metropolitan region home. In addition to the oil and gas businesses still in the area, Denver's economic make-up now is more diverse. Telecommunications, financial and educational institutions dot the city's landscape. The region also has one of the country's highest concentrations of tech workers, scientists and engineers. The Mile High City has a thriving metropolitan region, too, with suburbs such as Aurora and Lakewood that are large cities in their own right.

And 1 million more residents are expected to filter into the region during the next 20 years. That's a good thing, growth-wise, but with traffic congestion already a major issue, city officials are well aware something needs to be done to address the transportation problem.

"It became painfully obvious to us that we couldn't meet the [transportation] needs of a city that was aspiring to be world class," says Clark.

But during the next decade, that will all change. RTD, which operates about 170 bus routes and 14 miles of light-rail lines, is about to take its operation to a whole new level by introducing rail service to the entire metropolitan area.

From 14 Miles To 152

In November, RTD will open the 19-mile Southeast Corridor (see page 37), which is being built as part of the Transportation Expansion Project (T-REX) in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

And that's just a small sample of the service additions to come. RTD currently is in the pre-construction phases of the FasTracks plan: a $4.7 billion project that includes 119 miles of light- and commuter-rail lines, and 57 stations (see page 39). Had the agency chosen to carry out its plans line-by-line, it could have taken up to 70 years to complete. Building the lines all at once puts the projects on the fast track for completion to ensure that as traffic congestion worsens, RTD will be able to respond.

In the simplest terms, the service expansions will get people out of their cars and onto trains, and reduce rush-hour automobile traffic by up to 25 percent, RTD officials say. But for Denver metropolitan area officials — and RTD execs, for that matter — the expansion plans carry a whole lot more meaning.

Less traffic congestion and more commuting options will improve the region's quality of life and make Denver that much more attractive to current and potential businesses and residents. Those stations RTD is building on the new lines? They have been and will continue to be magnets for development. And it sure can't hurt ticket sales for the downtown entertainment centers if people can just catch a train into the city and avoid the hassle of dealing with traffic and parking. Translation: RTD's rail system will be a vital link in keeping the Denver area's economy healthy — now and in the future.

"If we expect to grow intelligently, we know we have to make the right investments, and that's what really motivated this program," says Marsella. "This is a business investment this community is making to position ourselves for the future so people can get to work, get to school, get to events. We're not going to be hostage to a car-only, forever-gridlocked community."

Rail's Evolution

But it wasn't so long ago that making such a hefty investment in a rail system would have been unthinkable. RTD officials battled for years to prove to nay-sayers that rail could be a viable transit option in a car-loving town.

In 1994, the agency opened its first light-rail line — the five-mile Central Corridor that operates in a loop through the heart of downtown Denver. That same year, the Denver Regional Council of Governments approved RTD's plan to build the 8.7-mile, five-station Southwest Corridor between the Central Corridor terminus at I-25 and Broadway, and Littleton, Colo. RTD's plan to build its first suburban light-rail line was "highly questionable in terms of whether or not they'd get the ridership," says Clark.

Critics' argument? Denver is not New York City, Philadelphia or Boston — dense cities predisposed to transit rail. Residents love their cars and wouldn't give them up to take the train.

But that theory was proven wrong when the Southwest Corridor opened in April 2000. More than 12,000 people began riding the system that originally was projected to carry 8,400 passengers daily. Today, it serves 18,000 people each day.

"The public said, ‘This myth that people won't ride transit is nothing more than a myth,'" says Clark. "Pretty soon, it was like the neighbor next door who has the new riding lawnmower. You want your own lawnmower."

It was a good thing, then, that RTD officials already had plans in the works to bring light-rail service to other suburbs.

In the mid-1990s, RTD completed a major investment study to review transit options along the I-25 corridor. When the agency determined light rail would be the best fit, then-Gov. Roy Romer said, "‘We'll give you the right of way along the highway and you guys go ahead and build it,'" says Marsella.

But when Republican Gov. Bill Owens took office in 1999, the plan changed. Owens wanted to expand the highway, even though RTD had public support for the light-rail project.

So, Marsella approached the CDOT executive director about developing a multi-modal project under which CDOT could improve and expand the interstate while RTD built its light-rail system. Environmentally conscious residents along the corridor would be more likely to support the highway project if it included a transit portion.

"I told him, ‘You aren't going to build any highway without us, and we're not going to build any rail without you. Why don't we think about a multi-modal project and do both at one time?'" says Marsella.

The Result: The T-REX Project.

"When we reconstruct our highways, we all ought to think about rebuilding them with transit components, whether it's bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, whatever — come up with the combination that best serves the people traveling in those corridors," says Marsella.

For RTD and CDOT, that winning combination includes building a 19-mile light-rail system from the existing Broadway Station to Aurora, Colo.; and adding one to two highway lanes in each direction along portions of Interstates 25 and 225.

Today, the $1.67 billion T-REX project is nearing completion and RTD will launch light-rail service on Nov. 17.

While southeastern Denver residents and businesses prepare for the opening of their new light-rail line, others in the metro area are waiting for rail to arrive on their side of town.

Coming Soon

They won't have to wait long — not in large-magnitude rail project terms, anyway. RTD is gearing up to begin construction on the $4.7 billion, 119-mile FasTracks project, which includes building three new light-rail lines and three commuter-rail lines, and expanding the Southeast, Southwest and Central corridors. The lines are in various stages of studies and design, and will open one at a time between 2013 and 2017.

"Once we see these transit improvements, it will have a real impact on travel patterns," says Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor. "Congestion is increasing and we will continue to see significant increases in the price of gas. By the time these corridors get built out, there will be substantial economic factors that will push people to look for alternatives to driving."

Traffic congestion isn't only affecting commuters. Area businesses see it as a major roadblock to attracting workers and customers.

"If you have an urbanized area where it's really difficult to get around, it's not a very attractive business climate," says Marsella. "So, companies that are here may relocate and new companies may not consider coming here. But when you build this infrastructure, they think, ‘I have access to the entire regional labor market, and I always know that my customers and employees will have an effective way to get back and forth.'"

It's that mentality that has led to the one of today's hottest real estate trends: transit oriented development (TOD). The concept? Build housing units, retail shops and office space near transit stations, creating an easily accessible, walkable community. With 13 Southeast Corridor stations about to open and 57 more planned for the FasTracks project, RTD is offering developers plenty of opportunities.

"There are a lot more people in the development community that are engaged in TOD," says Bill Sirois, RTD's manager of transit-oriented development.

When RTD began work on the T-REX project seven years ago, TOD wasn't as popular a concept as it is today, says Sirois. The economic downturn in the early 2000s also didn't help the T-REX TOD cause. But during the past few years, developers have made up for lost time.

Moving To The Mainstream

For example, in 2001, Cherokee Investments purchased 50 acres of the former Gates Rubber Co. manufacturing site — right next to the Southwest and Southeast junction at the I-25/Broadway Station — and are planning to build about 4,000 housing units and a couple million square feet of commercial space, says Sirois.

"For T-REX, TOD started slow, but it's really picked up," he says. "Now, TOD has become much more mainstream, so with FasTracks, there's a lot more awareness."

Even though it'll still be more about 10 years before the FasTracks project is completely finished, Denver's suburbs already have station-area plans in the works.

"There's already been a real impact on development patterns, with communities throughout the metro area looking at the coming of FasTracks as a way of redirecting development towards rail and bus rapid transit stations," says Boulder County's Toor. "The planning efforts we're seeing regionally are suggesting a fairly high percentage of new population and employment will be in transit-oriented developments around rail stations."

Within Toor's jurisdiction alone, several TOD projects are on the drawing board. In Boulder, city officials are in the process of rezoning the Boulder Transit Village — fittingly, the site of a former car lot — for high-density, mixed-use zoning so residential and office space can be built there.

In the city of Louisville, officials soon will adopt an urban renewal plan for an old cement plant site next to the to-be-built rail station, which will be located just a block from the city's downtown.

And in Longmont, city officials plan to turn an old flour mill — also the proposed site of the U.S. 36 FasTracks corridor's terminus — into a mix of residential and retail space.

"Everything is gravitating to our rail lines and station sites," says Marsella. "We've made the infrastructure investment; now, the marketplace will take over."

Denver's suburbs won't be the only beneficiaries of the T-REX and FasTracks projects. The city proper stands to gain some significant benefits of its own.

"Another thing these projects will do is maintain the viability of the center city," says Marsella. "If you have a thriving inner city, you have a thriving region. You see so many cities where at five o'clock, everything closes up and everybody runs away. We don't have that at all."

And once RTD's rail expansions are complete, it will be that much easier for residents in Denver's outlying areas to make it into the city's downtown, which is home to all of Denver's major sporting, entertainment and cultural venues.

Restoring A Landmark

But the venue that will play the most integral role in Denver's rail expansion plans sits at 1701 Wynkoop Street. Just around the corner from RTD's headquarters, the historic Denver Union Station stands tall at the end of 17th Street, with a prominent orange sign atop of the building encouraging passers-by to follow what RTD execs believe is an appropriate motto: "Travel by Train."

However, Union Station currently doesn't offer many options for train travel. Originally opened in 1881, the station burned down and was rebuilt in the late 1800s. At its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, Denver Union Station accommodated 80 trains a day. That number since has dwindled to just a few. One Amtrak California Zephyr train rolls into the station daily, and the facility also serves as the terminus for RTD's Central Platte Valley Line, a 1.8-mile spur off the downtown Central Corridor. Opened in 2002, the line serves all the major sporting venues, as well as Six Flags Elitch Gardens and a college campus.

But in the next decade, there will be a whole lot more activity at Union Station. In 2001, RTD purchased the facility and 19.5 acres surrounding it for $50 million under an intergovernmental agreement with the city and county of Denver, CDOT and the Denver Region Council of Governments.

"The station was in private hands and there were some rumblings about developing it into a shopping center," Marsella said during a short walk from RTD's 16th and Blake offices to Union Station. "I didn't want to lose the city's transportation centerpiece, so I convinced the board that we should buy it."

But with limited rail service coming into the station and no concrete plans for additional service, some observers questioned his decision.

"Personally, I was taking a beating, but when the FasTracks initiative was approved in 2004, it sure made us look smart," says Marsella.

That's because FasTracks calls for spending $200 million to bring almost all of the FasTracks corridors into Union Station and turn it into an intermodal hub. RTD also will renovate the historic station.

At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in late July, the station is empty save for rows of old high-back benches. The schedule board's lone item reads "California Zephyr" and florescent lights hang from what used to be chandeliers. But as Marsella stands in the terminal and explains his vision for the station, it's clear he sees what it can become.

"I want to restore those chandeliers, renovate things back to their historic look, move these benches to the side and maybe rent out the room," he says.

The 19.5 acres of barren land behind Union Station will get a new look, too. In late July, two developers submitted plans to take on the $1 billion redevelopment project. One sticks to RTD's idea of building rail lines and bus routes into Union Station below grade and dividing the land behind the station into 12 parcels that would be sold off and developed as hotels, and residential, retail and commercial space.

The other plan calls for keeping rail lines aboveground but rerouting the bus lines around Union Station underground, and developing the land to include a grocery store, public market, retail shops and a range of housing options. The master developer will be chosen in early October.

An Integral Role

In the meantime, RTD officials will continue to prep for the opening of the Southeast Corridor and conduct pre-construction work on the FasTracks corridors. It's a long way to 2017, and RTD officials will be busy every minute of it. It takes a lot of work to try and change the travel and development patterns of an entire region.

"These rail lines are going to become such an integral part of this community that people will wonder how we ever lived without them," says Marsella. "People won't even think, ‘How am I going to get to the game?' You go by train. You don't drive it — that's a thing of the past."



Next Up: Southeast Corridor Opening Day

On Nov. 17, the Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD) will more than double the length of its current light-rail system by opening the 19-mile Southeast Corridor, part of the Transportation Expansion Project (T-REX) being completed by RTD and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). The $1.67 billion project is being funded through a combination of RTD-issued bonds, agency funds, federal New Starts dollars and local matching funds.

Under its $897 million portion, RTD has built a light-rail system along Interstate 25, one of Denver's major interstates. The double-tracked, grade-separated line extends from the existing Broadway Station along the west side of I-25 into Douglas County, and in the median of I-225 to Parker Road in Aurora. RTD will open park-and-ride lots at all but one of the line's 13 stations.

RTD broke ground on the light-rail line in September 2001 after awarding a design/build contract to the Southeast Corridor Constructors, a joint venture between Kiewit Construction and Parsons Transportation Group. The project also included the new $40 million, 125,000-square-foot Elati Light Rail Maintenance Facility in Englewood, Colo.

To accommodate the new service, RTD purchased 34 SD160 light-rail vehicles from Siemens Transportation Systems.

Meanwhile, under its portion of the T-REX project, CDOT is adding one to two highway lanes in each direction along portions of interstates 25 and 225, reconstructing interchanges, rebuilding bridges, and extending ramps and acceleration/deceleration lanes.

"It's been an absolute home run," says RTD General Manager Cal Marsella. "It's good for highway users, it's good for transit users and most importantly, it optimizes mobility in the corridor."

The line will connect the region's two largest employment centers: downtown Denver and the Denver Technological Center. Located a few miles south of the city of Denver, the Tech Center is home to about 1,000 companies, including Merrill Lynch and Hewlett-Packard.

RTD projects 36,500 people will use the system on opening day, though Marsella believes the densely populated corridor will attract even more passengers. And with the line located right along congested I-25, the Southeast Corridor will "sell itself," he says.

"When we have bad traffic days, trains are going to be zipping by at 55 mph, and that's the greatest marketing tool," says Marsella.

— Angela Cotey



Second Time's The Charm

In 1997, the Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD) sought voter approval to fund Guide the Ride, an initiative that would bring passenger-rail service to the entire Denver metropolitan region.

The initiative failed; voters said before they could agree to invest in a multi- billion-dollar project, they needed specific details. RTD wasted no time fine-tuning its plan.

The agency spent the next several years conducting major investment studies on various rail corridors and launched an aggressive public outreach and input process for FasTracks, a 12-year, $4.7 billion project that includes three new commuter- and three new light-rail lines, and extensions to the existing Central and Central Platte Valley, Southwest and Southeast light-rail corridors. This time around, RTD officials made sure the public knew the exact station locations, budget and timeline.

To fund the project, RTD needed the majority of voters in the eight-county Denver metro area to approve a four-tenths-cent sales tax increase. How do you get people in such a wide-spread area to agree on such a significant investment? By making sure everyone gets something out of the deal.

"If you want regional support, it has to be a regional responsive program," says RTD General Manager Cal Marsella. "It would be very difficult for me to go to an area and say, ‘You're not getting anything, but we'd sure like you to vote for us.'"

It also helps if people know they'll be around to see the project through.

"If we built these lines one at a time, you're looking at 50 to 70 years," says Marsella. "Try telling a voter that they'll get their rail line in 2060."

Instead, Denver-area residents — who approved RTD's ballot measure in November 2004 — will be able to begin using the first of the FasTracks rail lines by 2013. The entire project will be complete by 2017.

The West Corridor, the first line scheduled to be complete, currently is in the final design phase. RTD will begin design on the U.S. 36 corridor next year. The agency has begun drafting environmental impact statements for the Gold and North Metro lines, and expects to begin environmental work for the I-225 Corridor late this year or early next. Work on the extensions will not begin for another year or two, says Liz Rao, RTD's assistant general manager for planning and development.

— Angela Cotey


FasTracks Facts

West Corridor

  • 12.1 miles light rail
  • 11 stations
  • Complete in 2013

East Corridor

  • 23.6 miles commuter rail
  • 5 stations
  • Complete in 2014

U.S. 36 Corridor

  • 38.1 miles commuter rail; 18 miles bus rapid transit
  • 7 rail stations, 6 bus rapid transit stations
  • Complete in 2014

I-225 Corridor

  • 10.5 miles light rail
  • 7 stations
  • Complete in 2015

North Metro Corridor

  • 18 miles commuter rail
  • 8 stations
  • Complete in 2015

Gold Corridor

  • 11.2 miles light rail
  • 7 stations
  • Complete in 2015

Central and Central Platte Valley Corridor

  • 0.8-mile light-rail extension
  • 2 new stations
  • Complete in 2015

Southwest Corridor

  • 2.5-mile light-rail extension
  • 2 new stations
  • Complete in 2016

Southeast Corridor

  • 2.3-mile light-rail extension
  • 3 new stations
  • Complete in 2016

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