March 27 2014

Can Denver’s Ambitious Light-Rail Plan Meet its 2018 Completion Deadline?

In 1993, Denver, Colorado did not have a single light-rail line in its metro area. By October 1994, it had a 5.3-mile track operating on what is now the D line - Denver’s first light-rail line.

In 2004, Denver voters approved a $4.7B initiative sales tax increase called “FasTracks” to provide funding for a rapid transit system comprised mostly of new light-rail tracks, stations, and park-n-rides to be completed by 2018. Integral to this plan is light-rail access from the Denver metro area, to and from the Denver International Airport.

Existing light-rail TOD in Englewood, a suburb of Denver

Existing light-rail TOD in Englewood, a suburb of Denver

Thanks to approval from voters, Denver’s ambitious plan was set in motion. Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) urban planners said that by 2018 it estimated Denver will have:

  • Six comprehensive light-rail corridors;
  • Three extensions to existing corridors;
  • Over 21,000 new parking spaces;
  • A $200M architectural redevelopment of Denver Union Station into a multi-modal transit hub; and
  • A new RTD bus system, realigned to meet new needs and demand.

At buildout this plan totals:

  • Over 122 miles of new rail service;
  • Fifty-seven new stations, and
  • Thirty-one new park-n-rides.

All of this to be completed in fourteen years? Does that sound ambitious? I thought so.

FasTracks at completion in Denver, Colorado

FasTracks at completion in Denver

The plan has already found a snag. The 2008 global financial crisis caused revenues to drop and material costs to rise faster than RTD forecasted. By 2010, the budget increased to $6.5B and projected revenues slumped to $4.1B. RTD decided not to put another tax increase on the ballot in 2010 and 2012, and as a result some portions of the project will be pushed back for a 2042 completion.

Despite the weakened economy, there is still lots of work going on:

  • RTD has sixty-eight miles (both light rail and commuter rail) either under construction or under contract;
  • Denver Union Station will be complete in May 2014;
  • The $2B Eagle project is under construction. This is the first transit public-private partnership (PPP) and received $1.03B from the U.S. Department of Transportation;
  • The I-225 corridor is under construction;
  • The North Metro Rail Line is planning on being constructed; and
  • The Northwest Area Mobility Study is underway.

Construction is underway on this section of the I-225 light-rail line

Construction is underway on this section of the I-225 light-rail line

Denver’s ambitious plan is still a work in progress (literally). But as long as the economy continues to improve, RTD’s plans may very well come to fruition, forever changing the Denver transit landscape.

A construction vehicle atop the I-225 line as it reaches Denver International Airport]

What is the role of urban planning in light-rail development beyond station planning and design? Based on your experience, is Denver’s light-rail investment worth it? How important was light-rail development in your community for commuting and transportation? Is Denver’s plan too ambitious?

Credits: Images by Jonathan Knight. Data linked to sources.

Jonathan Knight

Jonathan Knight is an award-winning planner and a recent graduate of Kansas State University with a Master's of Regional and Community Planning and Minor in Business. His interest in planning probably came from his avid playing of "Roller Coaster Tycoon" as a child: always fascinated in how complex things in the built environment worked; how they fit together; and why people feel certain ways in different environments. He has worked in sustainability, regional planning, and school planning. He is a professional freelance photojournalist and has been published in national, regional, and local publications. Upon graduation, Jonathan followed his dreams of living near the Rocky Mountains and moved west to Denver, Colorado. At some point during his time at The Grid in 2014, he will have climbed all 58 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado--a 12-year journey completed! Jonathan will be blogging about innovative urban planning, transportation, and housing projects occurring in the Denver region as it seeks to be a world-class city for businesses and people.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 27th, 2014 at 9:09 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Content, Jonathan Knight, Land Use, Transportation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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2 Responses to “Can Denver’s Ambitious Light-Rail Plan Meet its 2018 Completion Deadline?”

  1. Nathanael Says:

    To answer the headline question, no, Denver won’t meet the deadline. The Central Corridor Extension hasn’t started, and more problematically, the Northwest Rail Line (to Boulder) needs about $1 billion more to finish.

    Odds are everything else will be done by the deadline, though, which is pretty impressive.

  2. Jonathan Knight Says:

    I agree, it seems some things will probably not get done. But just like any goal, it is better to get it 90% of the way rather than not start. I am very pleased with the overall progress of FasTracks.

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