21 November 2006

Denver's Southeast Light Rail and More

Yesterday was the first business day that Denver's new Southeast light rail line is in service, something of a moment of truth, as the line was designed to be a commuter line and coincides with a major rethink of bus service to the Southeast Metro Denver area.

This is it for seven years

It is also one of the last notable changes Denver denizens will notice in their transportation system for the next seven years, when FasTracks rail lines start to open.

The Highland Bridge across I-25 extending the 16th Street pedestrian mall downtown to Northwest Denver will open in a matter of weeks.

The C-470/E-470 loop is now complete except for the portion planned for South of U.S. 36 (which links Denver to Boulder) and North of I-70, and is still in the discussion stages. It isn't even guaranteed to happen. The E-470 Tollway (the portion of 470 East of I-25), and the Northwest Parkway (from I-25 to U.S. 36) have been less financially successful than projected (a story covered well by Unbossed).

T-Rex improvements to I-25 in Southeast Denver are basically over now. The I-25/U.S. 36 high occupancy vehicle lanes have been converted to a mix of high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes.

Unfinished southeast light rail business

There are a few pieces of unfinished business in the Southeast rail line.

The Dry Creek station pedestrian bridge over I-25 is a bridge to nowhere until someone finished the bridge exit on the West side of I-25. It will be done soon enough. No project ever finishes everything on time. I’m sure that there is a story involved in the delay, probably involving disputes with the owner of the property in the area or the assigned subcontractor. But, I don’t know that story.

There is a light rail stop at County Line road, which divides Arapahoe County and Douglas County, and is home to the Park Meadows Mall. But, because the previous owner of the Park Meadows Mall was an asshole who insisted on staying out of the Regional Transportation District, there only way to get to the Park Meadows mall is to either stop at the previous light rail stop at Dry Creek, or to walk over I-25 on the pedestrian bridge, and in either case, to transfer to a bus line to get to the mall. It will be another year before the pedestrian link directly from the stop to the mall, agreed to by a new owner, is completed.

Buffalo, New York has a similar situation near one of its malls in the mid-1990s. The mall owner had refused to allow a bus stop at the mall, so workers and customers arriving at the nearest bus stop crossed busy traffic (not always at crosswalks as they were supposed to) to reach the mall. A kid died on one of those crossings and the mall did an about face. It is almost inevitable that some reckless young men and women will try to do the same thing and hop the fence and cross a busy frontage road at the County Line station. When it does, the blood will be on the hands of the previous owner.

While these two loose ends will soon be tied up, it could be a decade or longer, if ever, before the last big loose end in the Southeast rail line is completed. The Southeast light rail line ends at Lincoln Avenue. But, the biggest draw in the neighborhood, the Sky Ridge Medical Center, a major new South suburban hospital, which is the mirror opposite of Denver Health, central Denver's Level I trauma center. Denver Health gets the metro area's indigent gunshot victims delivered to its front door. Sky Ridge gets stock brokers who have had coronaries at work.

Sky Ridge is a major employer, a major destination for patients all over the metro area, some of whom are mobility impaired, and the only hospital in the metro area which could easily be placed right on the light rail line so the someone facing a medical emergency who was near a light rail line wouldn't have to drive. But, to get to Sky Ridge, you have to transfer to the infrequent Highlands Ranch bus service, a stubborn monument to suburban distrust of public transportation that could bring the wrong people to their turf.

A Good Move For Denver

For all its failings, Southeast Light Rail is a good thing.

It is a key piece of infrastructure that will keep Denver a functional city even if gasoline prices go through the roof, either due to waning overall supplies, or temporary disruptions like wars in oil rich countries, Hurricanes and maintenance problems with the Alaska pipeline, all of which we have experienced in the United States in the last year. Denver now has the 16th biggest system in the nation, and the Southeast rail line will like improve the city’s ranking, helping it to surpass Houston, and probably St. Louis as well. When FasTracks is done, Denver will have one of the nation’s premier light rail systems. It is already the best intra-city passenger rail system between Chicago and San Francisco. Relative to its population, FasTracks will leave Denver with light rail use rivaled only by New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia (in that order). Until FasTracks is complete, Atlanta and Portland, Oregon and San Diego will also have more light rail use relative to the city’s population.

Light rail is returning the city to its street car roots, and will encourage infill development instead of sprawl.

The electricity that powers the Southeast Light Rail is currently powered by dirty coal fired power plants, but the cars run so full and unburdened by traffic, that emissions per passenger trip remain low, and RTD and Xcel Energy, which generates the electricity, can convert to cleaner fuels seamlessly, so far as riders are concerned. The system is almost completely non-polluting at the point of use. Expect RTD to sign up for 100% Wind Source Power (even though in real life, electricity in fungible), in the near future, if it hasn’t already, for the light rail lines, in an effort to lure environmentally puritanical passengers. The surcharges associated with this choice will fall as the state’s renewable energy mandates kick in increasing the available amount of wind power in the Colorado electricity grid. Newly elected Governor Bill Ritter’s strong focus on renewable energy sources for the state may speed this up even further.

Transit Oriented Development and Community Impact

The sidewalks of the sprawling Denver Tech Center office park, which is home to almost as many employees as downtown Denver, will no longer be empty. The sidewalks were built simply because government regulations required them, but aside from a rare lunchtime jogger went empty, because the area wasn't built to human scale and was too far from anywhere anyone lived to make walking a possibility. Now, people from central Denver will leave their light rail stations and walk or bike the rest of the way to work.

They will be joined by a growing number of Tech Center residents who have snapped up condominiums and apartments near their workplaces so that they can escape the lengthy commute everyone else who works there must endure. This was particularly a problem for lower end employees as the nearby subdivisions in Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree and Parker are some of the most expensive suburbs in the metro area. The numerous pedestrian bridges built over I-25 will also make it less dangerous to walk or bike to work at an office over the interstate from your home.

Transit oriented developments are popping up all along the new light rail line, and one of the largest, the redevelopment of the former Gates Rubber plant into a mixed use development will be right at the I-25 and Broadway transfer station, bringing residents easy access to the Southwest, Southeast and downtown light rail lines, as well as good bus service on Broadway from downtown to Highland's Ranch, right between the two Southern light rail lines.


RTD is also making a big bet on Call-n-Ride service today. Regularly scheduled service in Southeast Denver around the tech center has historically been little used and expensive on a per passenger basis. Now, RTD has essentially given up on the regularly scheduled service model in residential areas in the Southeast Metro Area, replacing it with a quasi-taxi service in which you call for a ride at least an hour ahead of when you anticipate needing it.

Local service (i.e. buses that stop frequently) have been reduced to three East-West lines in the area, and service on either side of I-25 in the Tech Center. An additional limited route (i.e. a bus with less frequent stops) connects the ends of the Southeast and Southwest lines through Highland’s Ranch. Additional bus lines connect Parker to the rest of the system to the North and to the West of the city.

The reality is that the Southern suburbs don’t want and don’t need regularly scheduled bus service right now. You can’t survive in the suburbs without a car, and the population density is too low to make regularly scheduled bus traffic very efficient even if people wanted to ride the bus. The suburban public transit demand is for park and ride service for commuters and entertainment events. This demand is driven by the inconvenience of rush hour traffic and the difficulty of finding parking at the destination point, as much as it is by reduced gasoline expenses or reduced wear on the family SUV.

Call-n-Ride replaces a service that very few people want with a lifeline service for the few people who need it, for example, because their license was revoked or their declining vision makes it hard for them to drive any longer.

Next Steps For Colorado

While metro Denver’s transportation infrastructure won’t see notable changes until FasTracks finally builds itself out, there are interesting things going on in the transportation arena in Colorado.

Governor Richardson of New Mexico has brought passenger rail connections to his major cities, and has openly mused about the prospects of a passenger rail connection from Albuquerque to Wyoming along the Front Range. The corridor from Pueblo to Fort Collins, at least, probably has the population density necessary for this kind of move to make sense. If Richardson runs for President in 2008 and wins, this vision will probably be realized.

More modestly, the Front Range Express system (FREX) has established comfortable, WiFi accessible bus service for commuters from Colorado Springs to downtown Denver on I-25 and city streets. I saw it drop some passengers outside Scooter Joe’s from which I am blogging now, this morning, as I do most days. This modest volume, highly fuel efficient (due to a large number of passengers) and relatively fast (due to a modest number of stops) service, provides an alternative to passenger rail service on the highest density corridors of the Front Range until the state or nation are ready to make a much bigger investment in intercity transit infrastructure.

Another huge project is the set of proposals to deal with gridlock on I-70 in the mountains to the West of Denver, especially from Golden to Vail. The Colorado Department of Transportation in Governor Owen’s administration has favored proposals that simply widen the road at selected locations. But, it looks like this decision will not be finalized before the end of the year, and if it is not, Governor Ritter’s administration will likely take a close look at alternative that include features like HOV lanes that shift the number of lanes in each direction during ski season rush traffic, and expanding the quality of transit offerings from DIA and the Denver metropolitan area to Vail.

The third and final major question looming with regard to the state’s transportation infrastructure is Superslab, a proposed major toll road and rail and pipeline corridor running parallel to I-25 to the East, avoiding urban traffic.

There is also a separate proposal, which would likely be abandoned if Superslab went through, to simply build a new freight rail line in Colorado’s plains to divert freight trains that now passing through Denver on North-South trips, mostly trains carrying coal from Wyoming strip mines to Texas power plants, bringing the city noise, slowing other freight, and bringing trains into contact with street traffic.

The power of a private company to unilaterally build the project without government consent was eliminated in the 2006 legislative session, but the door was left open for a plan to be approved with the cooperation of the Colorado Department of Transportation, which a developer has been actively pursuing. If Bob Beauprez had won the 2006 Governor’s race, this plan might have had a prayer, as Republicans have shown a strong affinity for toll roads, despite massive public opposition to the plan. But, unless a deal is inked with CDOT before the end of the year, Superslab is likely to die on the vine, although the less ambitious freight rail diversion might have some hope after the commotion associated with Superslab settles down.

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