30 April 2015

Why Are We Still Waiting For FasTracks?

According to 9News:
We are now a year away from the commuter rail running from Denver Union Station to Denver International Airport. The tracks are done and ready to go, but it is still going to take some time for passengers to be able to the rail out to DIA. The 56 cars that will be running on the commuter rail all need to be tested for 1,000 hours. RTD also has to determine how the bus routes along the East Rail line will be affected and changed. 
When the commuter rail opens the first train will run at 3 a.m. and the last train will leave at 1 a.m. It will run every 15 minutes during peak times and 30 minutes during other times. The proposed cost is a flat rate of $9 to the airport, and the same $9 fee for if you are traveling round trip to the airport in the same day. 
The promised trip time from DIA to Union Station on the East Line is 35 minutes, comparable with cars in light traffic (excluding time to park and get to the terminal from a parking space), and quite a bit faster in rush hour gridlock, particularly when construction is intense or there are accidents on the route.

Meanwhile, the line along I-225 from the existing 9 mile station to I-70 at Peoria, which will open in 2016 is also well underway.
The line is nearly 60 percent complete. . . . design work on the entire project [is] 99 percent complete and all seven light rail bridges are nearing completion. All eight stations are currently under construction and an overhead wire has been strung to just north of the Iliff Bridge.
It sounds like the DIA line will open before the I-225 line does, despite the fact that the I-225 line won't need to test the cars because it will be a light rail line, rather than a commuter rail line like the one to DIA that uses a different kind of cars than those currently in use in Denver's transit system.

The 9News story intimates that the East Line might open in the spring of 2016, rather than near year end, as the cynic/pessimist in you is inclined to assume.

The line from Union Station to Wheat Ridge (the Gold Line) and commuter rail from Union Station to Westminster (the Northwest Rail Line), which will basically be a one stop spur from the Gold Line at first, will also open in 2016 as well, as will bus rapid transit service to Boulder.


A Natural Experiment

The new lines will provide an interesting natural experiment in transportation economics.  The nearest real competition to DIA is about an hour and a half away to the South in Colorado Springs from DIA, and there are no real competitors to DIA in any other direction.

Some people drive to DIA.  There is a premium priced express bus service already offered by RTD to the airport from various stops around the metro area called "Sky Ride.", as well as non-express bus service to some nearby destinations.  Taxis, van services, limos, hotel shuttles, and Uber all serve the airport, and so do friends and family dropping people off, and people taking their own cars to airport parking and shuttle parking.  The total traffic in and out of DIA is unlikely to be seriously impacted by the transit service, so it boils down to market share.

Which means of transportation to the airport will decline when some people choose to take commuter rail to DIA instead?

Will friends and family that previously provided kiss and ride service to the terminal now do the same with a light rail stop?  Will taxi, van and limo service suffer?  Will SkyRide traffic decrease?  Will hotel shuttle traffic fall off?  Or will it free up spaces in shuttle parking?

Surely, all of these modes will take hits.

Sky Ride Impact

"Sky Ride" may be almost completely replaced.  Commuter rail isn't subject to the perennial highway gridlock that slows down buses, the price will be comparable, and rail offers more convenient entry points that the limited number of Sky Ride stations.  All but a handful of light rail stations will offer direct access to Union Station or another DIA commuter rail line.

Shuttle Parking Impact

Impact on shuttle parking may have a lot to do with the availability of cheap, long term parking options at light rail stops.  If one could get long term parking within walking distance of a light rail stop for $2 a day, this would make it an attractive alternative to shuttle parking economically for trips of three days of more, and shuttle parking customers already accept rubbing shoulders with fellow travelers and a certainly amount of delay, and have also proven that they are price conscious.  It is probably faster to drive to a long term parking light near a light rail stop and take it to the airport (often with one transfer between rail lines), than it is to drive from home to a shuttle parking lot, await pickup by a shuttle bus, and then take the shuttle bus to the airport.  But, if long term parking isn't available at light rail stops, this won't happen.

I suspect that premium parking trips right next to the airport will take a smaller hit, and that the impact will be intermediate for terminal economy parking.

Kiss and Ride Dropoff Impact

It is an hour and a half to two hour round trip for a friend or family member in the area served by light rail to drive someone to the airport, drop them off, and return home, while it would often be a ten or fifteen minute trip to take the same person to a local light rail stop.  Will this shift trips?  It depends.

Kiss and ride directly to the airport is probably a little bit faster than taking the train, and many people see the drive to the airport, at least, as quality time to catch up with a friend or family member, rather than a pure chore.  It will be interesting to see how many people spring for an extra $9 round trip DIA ticket to accompany a traveler all of the way to the airport, even though they aren't going themselves.  I suspect that few will, except in the case of unaccompanied minors, even though it makes quite a bit of sense.

Different Kinds of Visitors and Hotel Shuttle Impact

Travelers from the eastern seaboard, Chicago, San Francisco, Europe and Japan headed for a downtown hotel may find it perfectly natural to take a train from the airport to the city, and college students are always eager to be a bit adventurous and to pinch pennies.  On the other hand, visitors from major American cities who aren't used to using transit may be more reluctant to use it in Denver.

But, hotel shuttles, because they are free and provide a fairly direct trip to a destination in a strange city may still be competitive with rail, at least on days when traffic isn't too bad.  It will be interesting to see if hotels start to offer East Line voucher options to replace hotel shuttles until guests reach Union Station.

Taxi, Limo, Van Service and Uber Impact

Taxi, limo and van service and Uber all offer point to point travel that rail cannot, and both taxi and limo service serve the least price conscious customers.  I suspect that these services will see little decline from destinations outside downtown, but may take a hit on the DIA to downtown route is the service makes a good impression in terms of cleanliness and safety, and good shuttle service from Union Station directly to downtown hotels is implemented.

Ski Travel Impact

In its present form, the 2016 expansion of FasTracks is unlikely to have any material impact on what people flying into the DIA for ski trips in the mountains do.  There is no avoiding going from plane to a shuttle bus to ski resorts eventually (assuming that affluent ski travels continue not to choose slow and dirty Greyhound service from downtown Denver, or Amtrak to Glenwood Springs (and then bus on to Aspen and Beaver Creek or perhaps Vail) from Union Station which is slow, unreliable and infrequent.

The norm of taking a shuttle bus directly from the airport to resort on I-70 will probably continue to be the norm for these travelers for the foreseeable future.  And, realistically, even if the state legislature or initiative petitioners got a high speed rail to the mountains proposition in the ballot in 2016 and were swiftly approved for federal funding while Congress was controlled at least in part by Republicans, it would probably take until 2030 or so to complete.  More realistically, it would take until 2018 for the political forces to align for that kind of proposal, and probably longer, if that ever happens.

Economically, high speed rail makes much more sense from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs (where it is cheaper to build and there is greater population density to support the traffic) than it does from Denver to the mountain ski resorts.

Real Estate - At New Light Rail Stops

Meanwhile, real estate near stops, particularly "luxury apartments" are springing up near almost every stop in the system as the system expansion makes these apartments effectively closer to everywhere in the system, particularly to downtown and the airport.

Real Estate - Downtown, The Tech Center and Cherry Creek

Metropolitan Denver has basically three "downtown" areas where people go to work in professional offices.  One is the true downtown, one is the Cherry Creek mall area which is rapidly becoming a financial center that is home to investment firms and small business loan oriented banks as well as high end retail, and one is the Denver Tech Center.

The 2016 expansions in RTD should be to make downtown offices and entertainment options much more attractive to almost everyone in the metro area, while reducing the number of commuters and entertainment customers who drive to downtown and park their cars there, possibly leading to a shift in land use from parking which will have a somewhat diminished demand, to office and entertainment uses which will have greater value.  As a result, every kind of downtown real estate use, from parking to office space to commercial space to residential space will probably increase, probably with spillover property value surges for neighboring areas that have recently gentrified into thriving, high rent apartments for yuppies.

The Cherry Creek mall area is very pedestrian friendly once you get there, but isn't close to light rail or to reliable, frequent bus service that makes it unnecessary to consult bus schedules.  It won't be impacted much at all by the 2016 FasTracks expansion.  The expansion of office space in the Cherry Creek area, due mostly to zoning changes, however, has brought new housing to the Cherry Creek area as well, and the increased population density of urban oriented people may increase demand for transit options to link Cherry Creek by high frequency bus service to light rail stations and downtown.  Previous attempts to do this have repeatedly flopped due to insufficient demand, but the growth in this secondary downtown area may have finally reached a tipping point.

In principle, the 2016 FasTracks expansion could also greatly impact the Denver Tech Center, which has a rail stop at every major arterial street connected directly to the metro area wide rail and bus rapid transit grid (although it is quite inconvenient to reach by bus).

But, DTC is on a spoke, rather than a hub, which means that many commuters will still need to transfer at Union Station to get their by rail, and DTC is, by design in order to keep out the riff raff and to prevent workers from being distracted, very unfriendly for pedestrians and anyone else who is bus service dependent travelers once you get there.  If you've taken the bus to work, which is feasible in DTC, if awkward, so long as you keep a standard 9 to 5 schedule for your work day, your prospects for leaving the office for lunch or an errand during the day is almost nil,  Also, DTC doesn't have a shortage of free parking for shoppers and office workers who go there now, so there is no less economic pressure to switch to rail to avoid parking expenses and inconvenience.

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