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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.