The Denver region will start running trains this month on a new 12.1-mile light rail line, marking the launch of the first project of its ambitious “FasTracks” program that will eventually add 122 new miles of commuter and light rail service in and around the Mile High City.
The new West Rail Line, which cost $707 million to build, connects Denver to its western suburbs of Lakewood and Golden. The undertaking included construction of 11 new stations, 13 bridges and two tunnels. The West Rail Line was completed eight months ahead of schedule, and transit officials began testing trains on it earlier this year. Construction began in 2009 after the regional transit agency secured an agreement from the Federal Transit Administration to fund $308 million of the project.
Diane Barrett, chief projects officer in the mayor’s office, says the line -- along with other FasTracks projects -- is a key component of the city's long-term transportation plans. In 2004, voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax to fund the $4.7 billion plan (the estimated cost has since escalated to $7.4 billion). In addition to the soon-to-open West Rail Line, the work includes another new light rail line, three light rail extensions, an 18-mile Bus Rapid Transit route, and four new commuter rail lines to be complete by 2024.
Officials have also touted FasTracks as a way to reduce pollution, sprawl and congestion; and Barrett believes it will play a key role in shaping the character of Denver's neighborhoods.
“The transit-oriented development opportunities are just vast," Barrett says. “[W]e have these opportunities to create real, livable places around stations where people don’t have to have cars. They can go to jobs and get an education without having to spend a quarter of their income on transportation. That’s huge."
The line connects the Jefferson County Government Center, a community college, a federal government complex, a shopping center and Denver’s Union Station, which is undergoing its own renovation. It will take passengers 34 minutes to travel the length of the line, and trains will run every 7.5 minutes during peak hours.
The project also includes a major renovation to Union Station, which is scheduled to re-open in 2014, according to Regional Transportation District (RTD) spokeswoman Daria Serna. The station closed in December 2012 for the construction, which includes work on its Great Hall and outdoor plazas. The station will serve as a hub for rail connections, including Amtrak, and its upper floors will include a 110-room hotel.
Since the 2004 vote, the estimated cost of FasTracks has escalated to $7.4 billion, thanks in part to sales tax revenue that didn't achieve expected levels due to the recession. RTD officials are trying to figure out how to close the gap without asking taxpayers for more money. They're refinancing their bonds and seeking federal funding and contributions from regional partners to help close the gap.
In February, construction began on a new light rail that follows I-255 east of the city. It’s scheduled to open in 2015. The entire FasTracks portfolio of projects is scheduled to be complete by 2024, but officials have warned that could be a moving target depending on their funding situation.
This story was originally published at GOVERNING.com