17: Denver

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Light Rail
RTD
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Commuter Rail
RTD
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Bus Rapid Transit
RTD

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Denver-Aurora, CO
population 3,214,218 (2012)

When Denver’s first light rail line opened, it ran from nowhere (a run-down residential neighborhood a mile and a half north of downtown) to nowhere (a transit center next to freeway 3 miles southwest of downtown). This was the best the Regional Transportation District could do; previous attempts to raise taxes for regional rail proposals had failed. The Central Line did all right, though, mainly because buses from the south were rerouted to feed into rail. A 1000-space park-and-ride lot at the south end of the line also brought some riders. In 1995, 13,100 riders rode on an average weekday. By 1999, that had increased to 16,100, 30 percent of whom were new to transit.

Colorado has strong anti-tax politics; state government must refund any increase in revenue that is over inflation and increase in population. Thus, RTD had to ask voters to increase spending even when its tax base grew. In YEAR 1995, RTD requested that its tax ceiling to be increased for a light-rail extension south to Littleton . This time, the measure passed .

The Southwest Corridor extension followed active railroad lines — which had previously been relocated and sunk below grade — through suburbs along Santa Fe Boulevard in a corridor with lots of commuters and no freeway. Once again, bus lines were rerouted, but the extension relied heavily on park-and-ride lots, with 2,600 spaces at four stations. As soon as the line opened in 2000, the lots filled up, and RTD scrambled to provide more spaces. Riders complained about crowded trains. 13,300 people rode the new line on an average weekday (compared to 8,400 projected ); 34 percent of them were new to transit. Light rail was no longer a train to nowhere.

With the Southeast line a success, RTDD considered further extensions. Planners concluded, though, that the original line, which followed streets through downtown, lacked the required capacity. So work began on a second downtown line, which follows the Platte Valley past Mile High Stadium to Union Station at the edge of the trendy LoDo area. Like the original line, it connects to the downtown transit mall, where free, frequent buses provide service to offices, shops, and the civic center.

The voters did not immediately embrace the system’s expansion. A proposal to raise taxes for a comprehensive regional system failed in 1997, but two years later, a measure to fund the Southwest Corridor extensions passed.

The Southwest Corridor far exceeds the Southeast line in scope and potential. Denver stretches almost 20 miles across the plains to the southwest, and so far, a commuter’s only choice has been Interstate 25, the most congested highway in Denver. In the 1990s, the Colorado Department of Transportation studied expanding I-25, and found that any growth would be a tight squeeze. The highway passes large office parks on the outskirts of Denver, then cuts through inner neighborhoods in an area called The Narrows. With little additional right-of-way available; any lanes added now might be the last ever. The highway department proposed to include light rail.

Pairing rail transit and freeways is nothing new; Chicago replaced an “el” with a rapid transit line in the center of the Eisenhower Expressway in 1953; San Francisco and Washington followed suit in the 1970s. But for those cities, the goal the goal was simply to combine two modes of transportation in one corridor. CDOT saw light rail as a way to expand the freeway’s capacity. When the freeway was expanded, the department reasoned, congestion would decrease at first but then rise again as the population rose and no additional lanes could be built. But a rail line the width of a freeway lane has tremendous spare capacity. If two car trains running every 10 minutes fill up, you can run them every 5 minutes, or even run four-car trains every three minutes. In other words, a six-fold increase in capacity requires only the purchase of more rail vehicles. In the Southwest Corridor, rail’s primary purpose is not to serve today’s needs; it’s to provide relief for future demand.

When the light rail line opens in 2006, it will have almost 6000 park-and-ride spots, including a massive 1,120 space garage in open fields at the southern edge of suburbia. The line will also serve the University of Denver and connect to dozens of suburban office parks. To attract some of those office workers to rail, RTD will even run suburb-to-suburb trains. The system is expected to carry 38,100 riders on an average weekday .