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Could Denver’s Light Rail System be The Future of Public Transit?

June 27, 2014
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Could Denver’s Light Rail System be The Future of Public Transit?
Union Station in Denver. Matthew Black/Flickr
FasTracks is transforming the car-focused city into a model for public transportation

As more urban planners across the country brace for a future where cities are densely populated, local officials are turning their attention to investing in enhancing public transit. And even historically car-centric cities like Denver are getting on board.

The Western hub has spent the last decade planning an ambitious blueprint for a major regional light rail system. Denver’s FasTracks program first was defeated in a 1997 referendum only to return in 2004, when voters got behind the $4.7 billion project to add 121 miles of commuter and light-rail tracks, 18 miles of bus rapid transit lanes, 57 new rapid transit stations and 21,000 park-and-ride spots, according to the Atlantic CityLab.

Now a decade later, the Regional Transportation District (RTD), metro Denver’s rail provider, boasts the makings of one of the nation’s greatest public transit systems. Although a work in progress, last year FasTracks introduced the West Rail Line, which runs through some of Denver’s lowest income communities to its terminus in Jefferson County. The program is aiming to expand the East Rail Line to the airport and the Gold Line out west to Arvada by 2016, both powered by overheard catenary wires. Local officials are also targeting 2016 to add a bus-rapid transit system to the university community of Boulder.

Nine of the 10 FasTracks lines are projected to be completed by 2018, connecting 3 million spread across 2,340 square miles, and will include 18 miles of bus rapid transit and 95 stations.

“You’ll wheel your suitcase out of Denver International Airport, ride the train to Union Station, and hop a Car2Go — or even a B-Cycle if you’re traveling light — to your house or hotel. All using one card,” said Phil Washington, RTD’s general manager.

While the city remains a car-heavy town — only about 6 percent use bus or light rail — daily light-rail boardings shot up 15 percent between 2012 and 2013. Though cars are still a mainstay, more residents are embracing the potential.

“From the start, we made it clear we weren’t competing with the car,” Washington said. “And we explained, to the average Joe, that for only four cents on most ten dollar purchases, he’d be getting a whole lot of new transportation.”

Melinda Pollack, a founding member behind local nonprofit Mile High Connects has become a system supporter. Her group coordinates efforts to bring affordable development near transit, and hopes to build 2,000 units of affordable housing near the forthcoming stations in the next 10 years.

“When all the lines open, it’s really going to change connectivity for people,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure that low-income people don’t get pushed away from the stations.”

Indeed, FasTracks investment has seen an addition of 7 million square feet of new office space, 5.5 million square feet of new retail and 27,000 new residential units, The downtown area has increased its residential population 142 percent to 17,500 people since 2000.

“The system is developing and merging,” said University of Denver transportation scholar Andrew Goetz. “ The connectivity we’re going to see as a result is going to be quite impressive.”

Could Denver outpace the transit-praised cities of Portland or Washington, D.C.? By building an expansive system that not only serves urban areas but reaches the sprawling outlying communities where commuters work, Denver officials are not only betting on yes, they’re aiming to reshape American public transit system.

MORE: 5 Gorgeous New High-Speed Rail Stations Coming to the U.S.

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