Denver’s new trains

I spent most of the month of July at home in Denver, where each time I return, the pace of redevelopment and growth seems to be accelerating. 2016 promises to be a big year for the city, when the opening of four rail lines will more than double the region’s rail network. The openings come a year after the re-opening of Denver’s iconic Union Station and are the culmination of 12 years of planning and construction underway since voters approved FasTracks transit expansion in 2004. The big investment in transit has won accolades from around the United States for making Denver “the most advanced transit city in the West” and has undoubtedly contributed to Denver’s soaring reputation as a destination city for creative and educated professionals. When I came back to Denver this month, I looked through the south windows of the airport terminal at the new rail station, excited to know that the next time I come home I can arrive downtown in just 37 minutes.

DIA Station. Via Fly Denver website

Still, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in the changes taking place in the city. As a teenager growing up in Denver, I became an avid user of transit and bikes and didn’t get a driver’s license throughout high school. When my family moved to Lower Downtown in 2005, Denver’s future was moving in the direction of my ideals. Planning for FasTracks was starting, and a condominium boom continued until I left for college in 2008, adding new residents and services downtown.

What has happened since the Great Recession, however, has been far larger and fundamental in how it is transforming the DNA of the city. Denver grew from 600,000 to 663,000 people between 2010 and 2014, an increase of 10.4% and more than the entire decade of the 2000s. By 2020, the population will likely be somewhere around 730,000—a genuine population explosion that would have been mind boggling 20 years ago. For the first time in decades, the city proper, around 25% of the metro area of a little under 3 million, is growing faster than the suburbs. What’s more, much of this growth is happening in the densest, most urban parts of the city: by the time the rail lines open next year, well over 10,000 apartments will have been completed since 2010 within a 1.5 mile radius of central downtown. Denver is full of Uber, Car2Go, bike sharing, and all the other bells and whistles of 21st century sharing economy urbanism, as well as an increasingly high-tech and booming economy of companies creating those services. And at the heart of the city is the crown jewel of Denver’s new transit system, Denver Union Station.


Union Station dates from 1914, and was once the heart of intercity transit from Denver, serving as many as 80 trains a day. After the rise of aviation the station was mostly forgotten, but survived until it was purchased by the Regional Transportation District in 2003, which made it the heart of the agency’s proposed transit system. At the time, the building was mostly empty and unused, surrounded by parking lots and empty fields left over from the old freight yards. In 2006, a team of private developers, East West Partners and Continuum, who already owned most of the developable land adjacent to the station, won a design competition to lead the project to build the new transit infrastructure necessary for FasTracks and redevelop the station.

The developers drew on exemplary recent redevelopments of public facilities in America, like Grand Central Station in New York, the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco, and they have succeeded in creating a space every bit as impressive. The team recruited a mix of tenants to keep the station’s plazas, wings, and waiting room filled with people throughout the day. On the second and third floors is the Crawford Hotel, Denver’s answer to New York’s Ace Hotel and Portland’s Deuce. Denver now has a hangout cool enough for the creative economy hipsters that are coming in droves from the overpriced cities on the coasts. Union Station was recently selected as a finalist for the Urban Land Institute’s Global Award of Excellence, which celebrated that “Denver Union Station has transformed a vacant neighborhood and created a global touchstone for large-scale, mixed-use projects.” While redevelopment had started in the late 1990s, the station has catalyzed the growth of the whole area of the Central Platte Valley, Lower Downtown, and Lower Highlands. Two supermarkets will soon open across the street from the station to serve the growing population, and my mom will probably go car-free—fulfilling my teenage dream of urban living, just a decade after we saw the first signs of change.

The first time I saw the new station last winter, I was dazzled by just how cool it is, with its plush couches and shuffleboard in the waiting room, the swooping white canopy over the train platforms, and the big interactive fountain in the plaza. After all, it was kind of a realization of all the things that I had dreamed about Denver becoming when I was a teenager. But this time the space felt much more problematic to me. The redevelopment plan has been extremely successful at activating the station’s public spaces, but the whole development skews disproportionately towards entertainment for the privileged. When I stopped in for a beer on Saturday night, the waiting room was a party scene full of the young and rich who now live downtown. Where is the drug store or the sandwich shop that doesn’t charge $5 for a latte? Public transportation ought to be the quintessential commons but Union Station seems to only have space for some of our city’s citizens. Meanwhile, as FasTracks grabs the headlines of “progress,” RTD has approved a 15% fare increase, further burdening the city’s poorest residents.

Union Station waiting room
Union Station waiting room

The inequality on display at Union Station is emblematic of what is going on in the city at large. Denver now has the fastest rising rental prices in the entire country, matched only by San Francisco. Rebecca Solnit, lamenting that city’s boom has homogenized its once diverse population, wrote in 2013, “Poverty is cruel and destructive. Wealth is cruel and destructive too, or at least booms are. The whole of the US sometimes seems to be a checkerboard of low-pressure zones with lots of time and space but no money, and the boomtowns with lots of money, a frenzied pace and chronic housing scarcity. Neither version is very liveable.” Last month as I sat around with friends who complained that Denver “will never be affordable again,” I became a little nostalgic for the city I left behind in 2008, still not quite urban but not yet a boomtown.

Union Station became what it is for a simple reason—it was not wholly built by and for the public. Like a growing number of infrastructure projects around the country, Union Station is the result of a Public Private Partnership (PPP). Of the total cost of $487 million, only $65 million of the funding came from RTD’s FasTracks budget, with another $120 million coming from various federal agencies, local governments, and Obama Administration stimulus funds. The remaining $300 million was covered by federal loans that must be repaid through profit from private development. The only way to pay back that money is by developing massively profitable uses on the site—from $500-a-night hotel rooms to $5000 two bedroom apartments, to fancy restaurants that cater to Denver’s monied and mostly white elite.

Nonetheless, given our recent history, it is nothing short of remarkable that Denver is building one of the biggest new transit systems in the country. Transit investment was always tough sell in car-loving postwar Denver. Governor Richard Lamm was excoriated by real estate interests in the 70s when he proposed transferring money from the proposed I-470 beltway south of the city to mass transit, soon after the Regional Transportation District was created from the scraps of Denver’s dismantled streetcar network. RTD finally got its first light rail line in 1994, opting to utilize the cheaper technology that which at the time was the way many western cities, like Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles were starting their rail systems in the face of public skepticism and a paucity of federal transit dollars. Then, in 1997, RTD narrowly lost a referendum on a region-wide train system. As I mentioned before, in 2003 it acquired Union Station and tried again in 2004. This time, FasTracks passed 58 to 42. For $4.7 billion, raised by a 0.4% sales tax increase, RTD promised to build a network of 122 miles of new rails and bus. To win a region-wide majority, RTD had to promise something to everyone, while not breaking the bank. The result was something of a compromise, a system that stretched in all directions across the 2,337 square mile district. Here is the newly released RTD map.

RTD’s planned rail system

In addition to showing the suburban focus of the system, the map shows an something important about how the system is designed. The giant orange dot is Union Station. Union Station is not actually a station. It is a terminal. The new lines terminate here. What’s more, a decision was made to split the system between two incompatible modes—light rail to the south, and heavy rail to the north, and to separate the two modes physically, with the light rail trains located some 300 meters northwest of the heavy rail tracks, on either end of an underground bus station. This means that if someone is traveling from Westminster to Englewood, or DIA to Golden, they must disembark at Union Station and walk 1.5 blocks and wait for another train.

This split was surely done out of financial necessity and the piecemeal nature of Denver’s early transit investments—if RTD had had $10 billion in committed funding in 1994, they probably wouldn’t have done it this way. RTD’s new system is particularly good at ferrying suburban people from their cars at Park-and-Rides and young single professionals from new transit-oriented developments near light rails stations to their jobs in downtown office buildings, or visitors from the airport to their hotels. These are important functions, but many trips begin and end outside of the urban center, so having trains that travel across the metro area instead of only to the center can make transit a much more feasible option for many commuters. Most people who have the means to drive simply won’t use trains to get from Boulder to the Tech Center, or Littleton to the Airport. Those who do will be made to endure longer commutes than they should, to say nothing of the local routes used by most of RTD’s 350,000 daily riders which are mostly ignored by FasTracks.

The map below is from Leipzig, Germany, where a new rail tunnel underneath the city center and allowing for through service from suburb to suburb, as well as longer inter-city service, opened in 2013. Yonah Freemark wrote an in-depth post at the Transport Politic on the growing number of cities in Europe investing in this sort of service, which carries wonderful benefits to transit users and the economy. When I lived in Germany in 2010, using the S-Bahn networks in many cities showed me how convenient car-free living can be in cities similar to Denver. In Tokyo, where I live now, almost all trains run through services in the center city.

Imagine if Denver had invested in a similar style, allowing for true through service. A rail line from DIA would coast into an underground tunnel behind Union Station, before emerging to the south around the Pepsi Center and continuing down to the southwest of the city along what is now the southwest light rail line. From there it could eventually be extended further to Colorado Springs and Pueblo, allowing CDOT-run trains to interline with the RTD system and provide one-seat rides from Colorado’s southern cities into Union Station and the airport. Another train would run from Boulder through the same tunnel and all the way down to the Tech Center, connecting job centers in the northwest and southeast and universities in Denver and Boulder. Eventually, the Boulder line could extend further north to Longmont and the northern Front Range. Later, the Free Mall Ride along 16th Street and RTD’s new MetroRide buses that ferry commuters through downtown could be put underground into a 16th Street Subway that would carry trains from lines down Colfax and Broadway to Union Station and further into the Highlands and northwest Denver. These could be linked to much improved local bus services.

Yes, you’re thinking, sounds great, but probably several billion more expensive, and this is America, not Germany or Japan so we get what we can get. True. Still, I think it is important to understand the distance between what we’re getting and what a first-class transit system would look like, and why we haven’t been able to bridge that gap.

I don’t say this as a direct criticism of RTD. After the failure of the 1997 referendum, in the era of Bill Owens and the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, perhaps they were right to sell a simple suburban transit system. They got the ball rolling on a huge project that helped to transform Denver into a progressive city that is the envy of the West. At Union Station, the developers were certainly driven by a desire to find a way to finance the necessary transit elements, which necessitated the use of the station building as a high-end entertainment complex. Both decisions are eminently understandable in their context.

How the Leipzig and Denver projects were funded tells us something about why their priorities are so different. The costs of the Leipzig City Tunnel, estimated at 571 million euros in 2002, were split between the State of Saxony (182 million), the European Union (169 million), the Federal Government (192 million), Deutsche Bahn (16 million) and Leipzig (13 million): publicly funded through cooperation at the local, national, and continental level. This is how most other rich countries build public infrastructure.

The missed opportunity of Denver’s transit system is not so much the result of mistakes made at the local level, but the inability of the American political system to imagine public solutions to problems like transport, housing, healthcare, or the environment. The United States’ ability to publicly fund infrastructure has totally, utterly collapsed. We haven’t passed a comprehensive transportation funding bill since 2005, and the gas tax, used to support federal transportation investment has been falling in real terms since the early 1990s, with Republicans insisting that an increase is off the table. Mostly, our transportation system is in the news because our bridges collapse, our subways run chronically late and our intercity trains are decrepit and derail frequently—which perversely, becomes reason for Republicans to slash funding even further.

Instead, we live under the shadow of the cult of privatization and the free market that has controlled American political life since the 1980s. Advocates of privatization have learned that they can win simply by making truly public solutions impossible. They don’t need to convince a majority of Americans that trains are a conspiracy “to diminish Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism,” as George Will once ranted (in fact, two thirds of Americans actually want more public transit investment), but they can gum up the gears of government enough to prevent transit from becoming a truly viable alternative to cars and an engine for building truly equitable and sustainable cities. The result is that cities have no choice but to privatize our commons, and to make desperate tax giveaways to private companies and the “creative class” residents that drive the economy.

Union Station is not the only part of Denver’s transportation future that has been privatized. Three of the rail lines that open next year will be run by a private consortium. Even our beloved highways are no longer worthy of the shrinking public purse—or rather, perhaps they represented too big a potential profit to be left in public hands. A private consortium is building the new Highway 36 to Boulder, which includes “enhanced bus service” that will share toll lanes with profit-generating private vehicles, not the rail line or true BRT that Boulder was promised in FasTracks. The $1.8 billion widening of east I-70 to ten lanes, the biggest construction contract in CDOT’s history, is also being farmed out to a private company, even though many are arguing that the additional capacity will never be needed. As the privatization of American infrastructure kicks into high-gear, our political system ensures public transit is only minimally funded.

I am excited for FasTracks to open, and it is an enormous step forward for Denver, but I can’t help but feel it should have been better, and it should serve more the residents who really need and use transit. Hopefully Denver can come up with a bold transportation plan after FasTracks that addresses some of its shortcomings, and the United States can figure out how to publicly finance infrastructure that should stay public.

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