22 April 2016

Earth Day in Denver Is A Big Day For RTD This Year

Today is Earth Day, a celebration near and dear to my heart because my father was involved in the original Earth Day, not so long before I was born.

One of the notable experiences of my own adult life has been to bear witness to Denver's transit system come into being from almost nothing when I arrived in Denver.

RTD's Big Year

In honor of the day, Denver's Regional Transportation District is opening its 22.8 mile commuter rail A line from Union Station to the Denver International Airport today. (This also connects Denver's Gateway and Stapleton neighborhoods by rail to downtown.)  Tomorrow, all rail lines in the RTD system will be free and there will be parties at each of the new A line stops.

This is the one of several major transit expansions for the year for RTD, which has also brought a revamped fare structure. Overall, RTD is adding 50.7 miles to its electric rail lines this year, in addition to 18 miles of bus rapid transit infrastructure along U.S. 36.

This dramatic expansion of transit in Denver will make the city one of the best served by transit in the country, and regional municipalities are working hard to leverage that by authorizing high density transit friendly zoning near rail stops - evidence of which is visible across the metropolitan area.

A Brief Historical Detour.

From 1886-1950, Denver had intracity rail service provided by the Denver Tramway Company, but this was discontinued in 1950.
The tramway made use of a variety of types of streetcars, including conduit cars (until 1888), cable cars (until 1900), and trolley cars (until 1950). At the height of its trolley operations, the tramway owned more than 160 miles (260 km) of track and operated over 250 streetcars. By the end of trolley service, only 64 streetcars were still in use.
The Denver Tramway Company continued to exist an provide bus service in greater Denver until 1971 when its assets were sold to the City of Denver.  Denver in turn, transferred the assets to the Regional Transportation District (RTD) which it created in cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions and the state legislature in 1974.

Denver's current light rail system opened with only the 10.5 mile "Central Corridor" light rail line in October of 1994, after 44 years without rail.  The 8.7 mile Southwest Corridor light rail line opened in 2000 (shortly after I moved to Denver).  The 1.8 mile Central Platte Valley spur of RTD's light rail service opened in 2002.

On the map above, the portions in dark blue/purple represent the 40 miles of transit were in place or under construction before FasTracks was approved.  Of this, 19 miles of which, basically the entire Southwest leg of the project, was part of the T-REX project which started land acquisition in 2002 and was completed in 2006.

The 12.1 mile W line from Union Station to Golden added in 2013 (shown in aqua on the map above) was added as part of FasTracks (which was approved by voters in 2004 ballot initiative). Denver's Union Station itself was overhauled in 2014.

Thus, in the year 1999, when I moved to Denver, there were only a 10.5 miles of the Central Corridor light rail line that was just five years old (and was less than two years old when I move to Colorado) and there was no bus rapid transit. At the end of 2019, there will be 96.6 miles of rail and 18 additional miles of bus rapid transit in the region. Denver also has many bus lines that offer frequent bus service along many of the metro area's major arterial streets, that provide service that rivals intracity rail in convenience without the infrastructure costs associated with rail lines.

The FasTracks project has more than doubled the size of metro Denver's transit system, even excluding portions shown in green, which may never be completed, unless new funding is found. If FasTracks is ever completed as planned it will rival the peak size of the Denver Tramway Company's transit network of 1886-1950.

This Year's Other RTD Expansions

This summer, a 6.2 mile stub of a commuter rail B line from Union Station to Westminster (a first installment of the planned 41 mile commuter rail to Boulder and Longmont) will open.

This fall, an 11.2 mile commuter rail G line from Union Station to Arvada and Wheat Ridge will open.

And, this winter before the end of the year, the R line extending the existing light rail service to 9 Mile station in Aurora by 10.5 miles, all of the way along the I-225 corridor to the A line will be completed.  All of the track has been laid for the R line now, but it still takes months to get it ready to enter service.

Many new rail stations are opening in connection with the new lines and the downtown Denver's Civic Center bus station will also be rebuilt into a larger RTD bus depot now that the Market Street station hub in LoDo has been replaced by services offered at Union Station which a developer has purchased for a mixed use office, commercial and micro-apartment project.

The expanded bus rapid transit, shuttle, and rail services will also entail a major overhaul RTD's bus services, particularly its longer trip regional and express bus services.

Coming Attractions

There are still some loose ends to the FasTracks project, approved by metropolitan Denver voters in 2004, to complete after 2016.

The portions to be completed through 2019 are shown in orange on the map above.

Public-private partnerships put two of the remaining portions ahead of the schedule dictated by available funding. A commuter rail line will go north from Union Station along I-25 (only 13 miles of the planned 18.5 miles of the line is set for expedited completion in 2018 with the last 5.5 miles coming later, perhaps much, much later) and a 2.3 mile extension of the light rail line along I-25 to the Denver Tech Center to the Skyridge Hospital (set to open in 2019).

The remaining parts of the project are shown in green on the map above.

Lagging at the very end of the FasTracks project will be a 0.8 mile continuation of the 30th and Downing light rail line will be continued to the A line (the Central Rail Extension L line), a 2.5 mile extension of the Southwest rail line to Highlands Ranch. The scheduled dates for these projects hasn't been set, but appears to be after 2035, unless new sources of funding can be identified.

The Highland's Ranch extension probably will receive corporate sponsorship and assistance.

It would be a great shame to make the final 0.8 mile extension needed to complete the central part of the plan wait another two decades, but no private or public co-sponsors of that relatively tiny part of the overall plan have come forward and RTD is basically out of money for the near future. The W light rail line is the most recent light rail comparable in Denver, and it cost $707 million to build, greatly over budget due to various management mistakes, with completion in 2013 and was 12.1 miles long for an average of $58.4 million per mile.  At that rate, it ought to cost about $47 million to build the Central Rail Extension L line, some of which has already been expended for environmental impact statements and planning.  This would serve not just people in Northeast Denver neighborhoods, but also people en route to DIA from all points to the South who would like to bypass Union Station. (Also, with a slight additional modification requiring no new stations and less than a mile of additional rail, the Central Rail Extension L line could be extended to connect with the N line to the North as well as the A line to the East, allowing commuters from northern suburbans to bypass Union Station en route to the Denver Tech Center.)

Finally, an extension of the commuter rail B line the rest of the way to Boulder and Longmont from Westminster (the existence of a BRT substitute already in place to Boulder makes this a lower priority).  The FasTracks proposal called for a commuter rail line from Denver to Boulder to Longmont.  But, the last leg from Boulder to Longmont would provide almost no benefit relative to bus rapid transit according to recent studies, so it will probably never be built.  As the Denver Post editorial board explains:
Total daily ridership on bus and rail would increase by only 300 riders by 2035 if the $1.15 billion line were built to Longmont, according to a recent analysis by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project of RTD's Northwest Area Mobility Study. Not only that, travel time actually would be longer on the train than in rapid transit bus — 71 minutes on the rail from Longmont station to Union Station compared to 53 minutes by rapid bus.
Work on these last two parts of the B line for a total of 35 miles of rail line is not scheduled to begin for another 24 years, i.e. not until 2040.

Colorado's Intercity Transit Service

The transit picture for greater Denver also includes "Bustang", an affordable intercity luxury commuter bus service, provided by the state, on I-25 from Denver to Fort Collins and to Colorado Springs, and along I-70 from Denver to Glenwood Springs.

This service, as much as anything, demonstrates by example that the limited market for this service doesn't require high speed rail (at least in the I-25 corridor where high speed rail would be least expensive with $9.8 billion in construction costs for 135 miles or so of track from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, where population densities are greatest), because most of I-25 on this route is fast (75 miles per hour, only slightly reduced for select stops by bus), because luxury buses can provided the amenities that high speed rail users would seek, and because the amount of demand for the service is fairly weak even at very modest prices.

I-25 tends to be gridlocked every rush hour in the Denver metropolitan area (and savvy Bustang users can transition to RTD transit to avoid that rather than going all of the way to the downtown stop), but absent snowstorms and major construction projects, I-25 is rarely congested enough to significantly slow traffic in the rest of the Front Range.

Put another way, high speed rail on the Front Range is only attractive enough to secure economically viable demand if it is materially faster than driving or flying, at a not much greater price.  "High speed" rail service along the I-25 corridor that goes 95 mph, for example, would provide almost no benefit relative to driving your own car on that route.  But, perhaps at 180 mph, high speed rail along the I-25 corridor might begin to make sense if it wasn't too expensive and Front Range urban areas other than greater Denver started to experience a great deal of population growth.

Intense traffic congestion on I-70 from Denver to Glenwood Springs during ski season (and the vulnerability of those roads to closure due to accidents, snow and landslides) make the potential benefits per trip for high speed rail in that corridor relative to bus service much greater.  But, the population density served is much lower in the I-70 corridor than in the I-25 corridor, traffic is low outside of ski season (overall an estimated two-thirds less traffic per year), and the cost of building high speed rail in the mountains is much greater per mile ($16.5 billion from Golden to Eagle, about 120 miles) than on the flat open plains (much of which is open land and farm country) of the I-25 corridor.  On the other hand, since I-70 is near capacity in ski season already, adding rail service could produce substantial interstate highway road construction savings, reaching into the billions of dollars.

(In addition, Colorado has an Amtrak line that runs through Denver, an Amtrak line that grazes the far Southeast corner of the state, irregular season Ski Train service to Winter Park when funding is available, Greyhound bus service, and some smaller intercity bus or van shuttle operators.)

Why Transit?

What does Denver get out of its immense investment in transit that has provided it with a comprehensive system of electric rail service that puts most of the metro area within a modest distance from their nearest rail station?

First, this is a hedge against rising oil prices.  Prior to FasTracks, Denver would basically collapse if oil prices rose too much to make a city connected entirely by gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles economically viable.  Now, if oil prices rise, most metro area residents can replace most of their commutes with a transit system that isn't sensitive to oil prices.

In particular, the new comprehensive transit system makes it viable for someone wanting to go to most of the metro area's commercial center to park and ride with a short range electric vehicle (or bicycle) to a rail station, and then to make the rest of the trip by train.  So, even if we completely ran out of oil, the city could live on, while other cities that were not so far sighted would have to play catch up spending a decade or more when they had no alternatives and construction was much more expensive trying to put a transit system in place.

This said, Denver's transit system is not really a potentially complete replacement of motor vehicles. It is essentially a system for getting commuters and out of town travelers to downtown, the Denver Tech Center and the Denver International Airport that closely mirrors the interstate highway system in the metropolitan area.  It isn't designed to provide neighborhood to neighborhood transportation (which RTD does via buses).

Second, it is a hedge against future interstate highway system congestion.  The A line opening today will already often be faster than trying to get from downtown to the airport on the highway. Denver is creeping into permanent gridlock during rush hours, and rail provides a faster alternative at those times that can be expanded much less expensively than expanding interstate highways with more lanes in the metro area.  The more rush hour congestion grows, the more ridership the transit system will see.

(Incidentally, rail systems are also much less likely to be obstructed in bad weather or due to accidents, making the overall transportation system more robust in bad weather.)

Metropolitan Denver, and the City and County of Denver proper in particular, has been growing like wildfire, pretty much continuously since the early 1980s oil bust, and especially in the last decade and a half.  Denver has gone from being a medium sized middle of the United States city to a world class city of the first or second rank.

Despite seemingly having no natural boundaries (in fact, limited water supplies impose nearly invisible boundaries as Douglas County's ever falling ground water table reminds us), recent construction in the Denver metropolitan area has been at urban densities comparable to major cities with much more restricted natural limits on their available land.  Denver has made excellent use of infill opportunities and land use regulation changes to squeeze more people onto the same land.  And, higher population density is the key to making transit more attractive economically.

Third, it allows for higher density construction in commercial centers without the need to provide parking for new commercial development, while simultaneously increasing the value of housing across the metro area by bringing such much of it closer in terms of travel time to commercial centers than the pre-transit systems.  In a nutshell, transit allows downtown to outsource parking to distant park and ride stations which helps both commuters and people attending sporting, entertainment and civic events in the urban core.

It turns out that it is almost a global, universal empirical economic fact that higher population density is strongly correlated with greater economic productivity per worker.  So, facilitating higher density strengthens our economy.

Without good transit, metropolitan Denver would have to develop more dispersed and lower density suburban office parks that would be less economically productive, and the capacity of central Denver to be a first class sports and entertainment hub for the entire region would be impaired.  Yet, it has consistently been shown that healthier central cities yield economic benefits for entire metropolitian areas.

Fourth, it helps the environment in a city where ozone levels have impaired air quality.

Electric trains are not inherently more environmentally friendly than gasoline and diesel driven motor vehicles.  The coal that fuels much of the power grid in Colorado is very dirty energy.  And, emissions from new vehicles are much lower than their predecessors.

But, the large number of passengers on average per rail car-mile, and the efficiency of electric motors relative to internal combustion engines, tilts the balance back in favor of transit.  Equally important, as Colorado's electric grid (which is already about 25% sourced from renewable energy) becomes greener, everything that relies on electricity automatically and effortlessly becomes greener without any change in consumer behavior.  And, utility companies are in a much better position to be at the cutting edge of green energy innovation than every day consumers.

Fifth, the more extensive transit system also makes it easier for the disabled and other non-drivers (older children, people with suspended driver's licenses, people who can't afford vehicles) to access destinations across the metro area.  From a practical perspective, this is more of a side effect and serves a population that was already willing, because it had no other choice, to use existing RTD bus service to the same destinations which has been in place for decades.  But, it is still a benefit of transit.

Ranking Denver's Transit System

By the end of 2016, only six North American cities have more combined miles of commuter rail and light rail than Denver:

1. New York City 260.8
2. Mexico City 148.75
3. San Francisco 144.2
4. Philadelphia 118.4
5. Washington D.C. 117.0
6. Chicago 102.8
7. Los Angeles 98.5
8. Toronto 93.4
9. Dallas 91.6
10. Denver 90.7 
11. Portland 67.35
12. Boston 64.0
13. San Diego 53.5
14. Atlanta 50.3
15. Baltimore 48.5
16. Salt Lake City 46.8
17. Saint Louis 46.0
18. Montreal 43.0
19. Sacramento 42.9
20. Vancouver 42.6
21. San Jose 42.2
22. Calgary 37.2
23. Trenton-Camden 34.0
24. Cleveland 32.3
25. Pittsburg 26.2
26. Phoenix 26.0
27. Miami 24.2
28. Seattle 24.2
29. Houston 22.7
30. New Orleans 22.3
31. Oceanside 22.0
32. Monterrey (Mexico) 20.0
33. Minneapolis 21.8
34. Jersey City 17.0
35. Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) 17.0
36. Edmonton 15.1
37. Guadalajara 14.9
38. San Juan 10.7
39. Charlotte 9.6
40. Panama City 8.5
41. Norfolk 7.4
42. Buffalo 6.4
43. Memphis 6.3
44. Newark 6.2
45. Ottowa 5.0
46. Tuscon 3.9
47. Tampa 2.7

No city in Latin America other than Mexico City has any urban rail or light rail service with as many miles as Denver's city (the runner up in Latin America, Santiago (Chile) has 64.0 miles of rail, third is Sao Paulo (Brazil) with 46.1 miles).  There are 24 cities with urban rail or light rail service in Latin America other than Mexico City, Santiago and Sao Paulo.

By the end of 2019, Denver will have 108 miles, surpassing Dallas, Toronto, Los Angeles and Chicago, and making Denver first for a non-coastal U.S. city, fifth in the United States, and sixth in the Americas. If the entire FasTracks project is completed, Denver will have 151.6 miles of rail lines and be second only to New York City in combined miles of commuter rail and light rail in all of North and South America.

Melbourne, Australia has 155.3 miles of light rail, Adelaide has 9.3 miles, Sydney will open a new system in 2019 with 45 miles of rail.  Gold Coast, Australia will open a new system in 2018 with 4.5 miles of rail.

Antarctica, unsurprisingly, has no urban rail.

In Africa: there are four suburban rail systems in South Africa (some with hundreds of miles of track), there is a tram system in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (with 19.6 miles of track), there is a tram and a metro system in Cairo, Egypt (48.4 miles of heavy rail and something less than 36 miles of tram line), there is a tram system in Alexandra, Egypt (20 miles), and there are also urban rail systems in Morocco (one 19 mile line and one 11.8 mile line), Algeria (one 19.2 miles in two systems in Algiers, one 5.6 mile line in Constantine, and one 11.6 mile line in Oran) and Tunisia (one 19.9 mile line). There are also two transit systems under construction in Nigeria (the larger of which will have 22 miles of track).

There are many transit systems in Asia (including Japan) and Europe, many of which are more extensive than most of those in the Americas. See lists of global metro systems, tram systems, and suburban rail systems.

Needless to say, all of these other cities have much larger metropolitan area populations than Denver, and measured by ridership, Denver has a much more challenging task to compete with other major U.S. urban rail systems.


Dave Barnes said...

That green line to Longmont is completely delusional.
And, by 2070, RTD will be ceasing operations.
Autonomous cars, baby!
Why are we building rail lines whose life expectancy is under 50 years?

andrew said...

Autonomous cars address pretty much none of the problems that rail solves. Electric cars could solve more, but it pays to hedge our bets. Gasoline will be a lot more expensive than $2 (2016) at gallon in 50 years.

andrew said...

What about rail to Boulder? Will it happen?

andrew said...

The B line to Westminster, which is official the first installment of rail to Boulder (which will probably never happen) opened a week ago today, on schedule. Since it has only two stops (Union Station and Westminster) on its 11 minute run, and fewer traffic crossings, it will probably have a smoother time than the A line which uses the same commuter rail technology.