FasTracks — Rail Transit for Denver Metro

FasTracks: The biggest transit expansion in North America

In 2004, voters in the Denver metropolitan area authorized the construction of a big passenger rail transit system. The plan called for 122 miles of new light and commuter rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT), and 57 new transit stations. It is the largest expansion of passenger rail occurring in America. See map.

The vote authorized an additional 0.4% sales tax to fund the project. Responsibility for construction and operation of the system went to the Regional Transportation District, which had already built light-rail lines from downtown Denver.

As of mid-2015, RTD has opened one new light-rail line to Lakewood and Golden, built a new bus terminal for downtown Denver, and revamped Denver Union Station. But things will change a lot in 2016, when RTD opens heavy-rail lines to Denver International Airport, Arvada, and Westminster; a light-rail line along I-225 in Aurora; and the BRT on U.S.36 to Boulder. Because of this huge expansion in passenger rail, ColoRail is calling 2016 “The Year of the Train”.

We strongly agree with RTD that FasTracks is good for the economy. As they note, $5.5 billion has been invested or committed to date across the region. This has created 15,000 direct full-time jobs since 2005. Every $1 invested in transit infrastructure translates into a $4 dollar return over 20 years.

Beyond 2016, we can look forward to another heavy-rail line opening in 2018, the 13-mile North Metro line to Thornton and Northglenn. (Its terminus is five miles short of the original plan due to funding constraints.) The plan also calls for three minor rail extensions. One would extend the Central line which now goes north from downtown to 30th & Downing. It will connect with the airport line at 38th and Blake. Another would extend the Southeast line down to Lone Tree. The third would extend the Southwest line to Highlands Ranch. Of these three, only the Southeast extension currently has funding to proceed.

The FasTracks tax is not generating enough money to complete the plan. (See sidebar for the reasons why.) The biggest problem, the issue causing serious controversy and heart-ache, is the Northwest heavy-rail line that was promised to Broomfield, Louisville, Lafayette, Boulder, and Longmont. The cost is currently estimated at more than $1 billion — money that RTD does not have and will not have until perhaps as late as the year 2040. Citizens of those northern communities — especially Boulder which voted strongly in favor of FasTracks — are understandably upset! What can be done? RTD considered and rejected asking voters for a tax increase.

RTD developed an answer called the Northwest Area Mobility Study, which the RTD board of directors approved in 2014. It calls for eventual, or gradual completion of the legally mandated Northwest rail line. But, given the long time until sufficient money is available, RTD and the relevant local governments decided to also invest in enhanced bus systems. The busses would go from Boulder to Longmont on CO 119 and from Broomfield through Louisville and Lafayette on U.S. 287. But, RTD notes on the plan’s web site, “New funding must be identified for these…”

The Northwest Area Mobility Plan has left many rail advocates unsatisfied. Northwest Rail is by law the plan, but RTD now plans to divert substantial funds into interim bus solutions. Some advocates have called for RTD to instead establish a long-term savings account, dedicated to rail, which the agency would gradually grow whenever funds are available.

Regardless of the funding shortages, FasTracks is a giant leap forward for Colorado passenger rail. Downtown Denver will finally have a rail connection to its airport. The metro area economy will benefit from a more diverse, robust transportation system. Real estate development will soar along the train lines. FasTracks will demonstrate the transformative power of passenger rail.