“Build as much as we can, as fast as we can, until it’s all done!”
That’s the mantra of Colorado’s FasTracks program. My recent tour of the Denver region confirmed what the planning profession is claiming - that the Colorado Front Range is now a national leader in the construction of new light rail transit and in community revitalization. They are now also in the forefront of downtown redevelopment and transit-oriented development. Denver’s regional transit expansion program is fast becoming a model on how to build transit and revitalize communities. In eight counties in the Denver region, planners and elected officials have taken an aggressive approach to extending regional transit. Additional lines and capacity are being added to the Regional Transportation District’s current five light rail lines, 39.4 miles of track and transit stations.
Most transit station areas are connected both by light rail transit and by regionwide bicycle trails and cycle tracks. What is evident if you visit these areas is that the Millennial generation has embraced these places preferring to live in or near to light rail stations or in transit accessible areas of downtown Denver. Young people in the Denver area are moving to where they do not need an automobile to live and work. This demographic appears intent on breaking the auto dependency habits of their parents and grandparents. They are using light rail, bus, bicycles, car sharing and bike share to transport themselves to shopping, recreation and employment opportunties in the Denver region.
The RTD FasTracks Program is a multi-billion dollar comprehensive transit expansion plan. The goal of FasTracks is to construct 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit and 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations. Bus service is being enhanced for convenient bus and rail connections across the eight-county district. What is most surprising to many planner types is that all of these regional transit expansion projects are due for completion by 2020 extending bus rapid transit or rail service to Boulder and even distant Longmont. Keep in mind that this completion timetable is less than eight years from now. This is a remarkable time schedule for any U.S. transit expansion project, particularly various separate transit projects of this scale and distance to be covered. This is the transit expansion goal that the Denver region is committed to.
This begs the question: “Who is designing and building all these miles of new transit lines in the Denver region?” Colorado’s Regional Transportation District, or RTD, is the driving force behind the FasTracks program. Organized in 1969, the RTD is the authority that operates public transit services in eight of the 12 counties in the Denver-Aurora-Boulder Combined Statistical Area.Invariably, transportation and planning professionals next ask: “How is Colorado’s RTD financing the construction all of these regional transit projects?”
The office of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper — a former mayor of Denver and a champion of FasTracks –explains that the transit expansion is being funded through a combination of sources and assorted partnerships. These include a voter-approved sales tax increase of 0.4 percent (4 pennies on every $10), which was passed in 2004; a mixture of Sales Tax Bonds; Certificates of Participation (COPs) where investors purchase a share of the lease revenues, rather than the bond being secured by those revenues; “Pay as you go” cash financing, and local funding contributions. From the federal side, FasTracks is counting on over $1.4 billion in federal funding. That includes federal New Start transit funds, Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) Loans and a variety of other federal funding sources. FasTracks is also using innovative public-private partnerships that allow public agencies to contract with private partners to keep transit projects on schedule.
“Where is light rail operating now and what is occurring in these areas?” Currently, the RTD Light Rail serves rapidly changing areas of downtown Denver which include the thriving “LoDo” (Lower Downtown) District, the nearby Wynkoop Brewery, Union Station, Coors Field (home of baseball’s Colorado Rockies); Denver’s Pepsi Center and Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium (the home of Denver’s new QB Peyton Manning).Visitors to downtown Denver are witnesses to both new construction and extensive revitalization of older buildings covering many areas of downtown. This is occurring throughout downtown Denver with a central focus on the LoDo District and nearby areas. Note that most of these new activity centers and extensive restaurant and club attractions are within a few blocks of downtown RTD light rail stations.
FasTracks light rail service currently connects the communities of Littleton, Englewood and Overland, as well as mixed use centers along the I-25 corridor south of the city, with downtown Denver. RTD bus service also connects transit centers in locations such as Boulder providing well used travel alternatives to single occupant automobiles throughout the greater Denver metro area.After attending a Colorado Rockies baseball game I happened upon an amazing street scene in the nearby LoDo District. Thousands of people were walking, bicycling and congregating along sidewalks and streets linking various restaurants, clubs and assorted music venues. This was occurring for several blocks in every direction. Later I learned that Governor Hickenlooper started the Wynkoop Brewery in what was then a run down industrial area of Denver in 1988. Apparently, this historic area called “LoDo” was the original grid of streets that formed Denver. The LoDo District is now a remarkable success story that showcases downtown Denver’s revitalization efforts. Nearby light rail transit stations, bus service and more bicycles than one can possibly count are found throughout the LoDo District. This is where many college age folks and Millennials in the Denver area head to on a weekend or summer evening. Lodo’s street scene is more reminiscent of NYC’s Times Square than the former vacant industrial district that once occupied this area of Denver. Locals claim that light rail and nearby sports facilities provided the spark for a major renewal effort in this former warehouse and industrial area of downtown Denver. LoDo appeared nearly abandoned 30 years ago when new highway construction led to other growing areas in the region. Now LoDo is where you want to be if you are visiting downtown Denver.
“So, what is next for FasTracks?” Well – Light rail service to the west Denver suburbs is rapidly approaching. The West Rail Line is a 12.1 mile light rail transit project currently under construction. This will connect downtown Denver with the western suburban communities of Lakewood, Golden and Jefferson County and is planned to begin service in 2013. Denver. The 22.8 mile East Rail Line is planned to extend from Denver’s Union Station to Denver International Airport. The East Rail Line is being constructed as part of the fully funded Eagle P3 Project. Also in the planning stages are light rail and/or bus rapid transit service, which will connect residents of Denver’s northwestern suburbs, including Broomfield and Boulder, to downtown. Rail service to far off Longmont is also planned as part of the FasTracks system expansion which is scheduled to be operating on or before 2020.
“How is RTD’s light rail transit service adapting to changing dynamics in the communities where it operates?” While the term “aggressive” correctly describes the planners and designers of FasTracks. These professionals are also very “nimble” as well. FasTracks planners and engineers make extensive use of “Value Engineering” during design and construction of projects. They examine technical aspects of a project and seek ways to provide equal or greater value for less cost. This includes value capture in the design of transit-oriented development projects at various RTD transit station areas. I am not sure how they are accomplishing this, but FasTracks designers are rapidly improving local access, real estate opportunities and connections to pedestrians and bicyclists in the vicinity of many RTD transit stations. Even to those traveling by automobile, the distinctive RTD pedestrian bridges are now almost ubiquitous crossing highways and freeways throughout the Denver region.
More importantly, the real estate market appears to be responding to RTD’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) efforts at the transit station areas that I visited. The focus of their TOD effort is toward creation of pedestrian and bicycle-oriented environments that allow people to live, work, shop and play in places accessible by transit. These TOD initiatives seem to have found a target audience among younger Colorado residents who are choosing to live less auto-dependent lifestyles. Given the fact that the Denver Metro area consists of 39.7 percent of residents with at least an undergraduate degree, this region appears well poised for sustainable 21st Century economic opportunities at the many the regional growth centers that are connected by RTD transit service. Current TOD projects to keep an eye on include the Alameda Central Corridor, Olde Town Arvada, and the Federal Center West area in Lakewood.
Local transportation choices are now expanded through an extensive network multi-purpose trails that now wind their way through communties throughout the Denver region. These trails allow bicycles to be used for commuting purposes between formerly distant suburbs and downtown Denver. The extent of the regional trail network and Denver’s more recent bike share program appears to be quite large and growing year by year. In most local areas community paved trails and cycle tracks now link residential areas to most transit stations. This is expanding non-motorized travel opportunities to light rail and bus stations for residents throughout the metro region.
Colorado Governor Hickenlooper continues to emphasize Colorado’s regional approach to light rail, bus rapid transit, bus system expansion and transit-oriented development as a model for community cooperation. “The region had been Balkanized,” Hickenlooper says, but the political unity behind FasTracks “demonstrates the region is acting like a city-state and getting over petty differences about who gets a slightly bigger piece of the pie.”
Using Colorado’s spirit of outdoor adventure as a metaphor, Governor Hickenlooper says: “We can be hopeful about our future. We can be bold. We will come through this rough time because we have emerged from rough times before – because we are resilient and undaunted. We’ll do it by working together in the best tradition of the West. Like every river runner knows, when you get into rough water everybody paddles.”
Regionalism along with changes in consumer housing and transportation preferences are central to the Denver region’s FasTracks transit expansion and successful TOD programs. RTD’s existing light rail and FasTracks expansion program are catalysts that are changing the way that residents live, work and recreate in and around the Mile High City.
For additional information on RTD’s FasTracks program, visit their website.