A Streetcar Named Desire

Will trolleys return to Colfax?

Dave Walstrom has streetcar envy. He sees the system in Portland, Oregon, and wants it for Denver, specifically the stretch of East Colfax Avenue between Broadway and Colorado Boulevard that is his fiefdom as executive director of the Colfax Business Improvement District (C-BID). He covets the $1.5 billion in private capital that has poured into Portland's streetcar corridor since 1997. He looks at Atlanta, Boise, Chicago, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Miami, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., along with a host of other cities bringing modern versions of the old trolleys back to their streets, and thinks Denver should be on that list. "There is a certain romance of riding streetcars that people seem to enjoy," Walstrom says.

Late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives brought Walstrom's dream a little closer to reality when it approved a funding bill that includes $500,000 to study the feasibility of putting an electric streetcar line on Colfax. The Senate still has to approve the measure -- and that isn't likely to happen until late fall or the first of the year -- but it's a step forward.

"Honestly, we were little a surprised it got approved. Congress doesn't always act in foresightful ways," says Chris Arend, spokesman for Congresswoman Diana DeGette's office, which worked with Walstrom, Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb and RTD boardmember Bill Elfenbein on the application for Transportation Community System Preservation Funds. "My guess is that because it's an urban-renewal project and the City of Denver and Dave had done such a good job of getting all their information together, this was viewed as a way to renew this unique urban corridor."

There are no specifics yet on what a streetcar line might look like, whether it would be operated by RTD or Denver, what it would cost or even where it would run. Some, like Walstrom, would like to see a streetcar line extending from Union Station along 15th Street to Colfax and then possibly out to Lowry, Stapleton, Fitzsimons and beyond. Others, like Transportation Solutions executive director Allison Billings, who actually discovered the TCSPF program and suggested that Denver go for its share, hope it would connect Cherry Creek to downtown and the Colorado Convention Center. "I see it as a real opportunity and possible solution for the central core," Billings says. "FasTracks is a great thing, but for people who live and work in the core of the city, FasTracks isn't necessarily going to be their solution. I see streetcars as having the ability to get folks between downtown and Colfax, Highlands to Cherry Creek, some of these interior central neighborhoods. It could also connect Broadway and the Denver Art Museum and the Central Library, which is walkable -- but it's a far walk from parts of downtown."

The details of a streetcar line would be filled in during the feasibility-study phase. But some possibilities have already been outlined in the "Denver Streetcar Network Conceptual Project Report" created last year -- long before anyone knew that federal funds might be available -- by a group of interested but relatively silent parties. In that report, the group estimated that a basic streetcar line running on Colfax between Broadway and Colorado Boulevard and powered by electricity via overhead lines would cost around $387 million, including track construction, purchasing cars, redoing traffic signals and striping, etc. That's a huge sum, but Walstrom believes it can be raised through a mix of public and private investment, as has been done in Portland and other cities. "This is really a redevelopment tool," he says.

"It has a lot of sizzle, and from an economic-development standpoint, sizzle is good," adds Greg Holle, chairman of C-BID.

"There is this nostalgic aspect to it that you're taking the city back to what it once was, and Colfax to what it once was at its greatest and best time, when the original streetcars were running," Holle continues. "The notion with light rail, for example, is that you are taking commuter trips and you're bringing folks in from farther geographic areas to some place closer and then dropping them at this main hub. With a streetcar, it's a conveyance that will get you the last few blocks. The streetcar has the ability to take people not so much from Aurora to downtown -- which it would do -- but more to take somebody on three- or five-block trips within that corridor. For example, someone parking at a central parking garage could hop the trolley up to Cafe Star."

Streetcars ran all across Denver -- up and down Broadway, along Colfax, around downtown and out toward Edgewater -- from the late 1800s until the last line was decommissioned in June 1950. During the last few decades of that period, buses also served the area, but trolleys were the transport of choice along major corridors. "The story is the same story in every city around the U.S.," says Charles Albi, historian at the Colorado Railroad Museum. "Electric streetcars got started in the 1890s, in the days before the automobile. Really, they helped build up the city, the suburbs. They gave people the ability to travel further out from where they worked and where they lived. It was the main means of transportation until after World War II, when everyone started getting their own automobile. I like to say streetcars disappeared because people voted with their accelerators. But the technology continued over in Europe; they never got rid of their good public transit over there. It's coming back now; it's just making the full cycle a hundred years later."

Streetcars were never a fixture on Downing Street north of Colfax, but RTD is considering adding a line from the proposed 40/40 stop to the north end of the D-line at 30th Avenue and Downing Street, continuing toward downtown on Welton Street. "We have two different alternatives for extending the existing D-line," says Mike Turner, RTD's east corridor environmental impact study project manager. "One is a double-track light-rail line along the west side of Downing, and then the other is a streetcar possibility. The difference there is that the streetcar would continue down Welton, and once it got to 20th and Welton, we're proposing that it would go down Broadway and then loop around 16th Avenue and go back around Lincoln."

The streetcars would run on the existing light-rail tracks, so businesses along Welton Street wouldn't suffer through long years of construction -- as they did in the mid-1990s, when the area was all but shut down to make way for the train service.

"The streetcar is a rail technology; it's kind of lighter light rail," Turner says. "The vehicles are somewhat smaller, and in some people's views, it's more compatible with the neighborhood. Streetcars are also a low-floor vehicle, so it's easier boarding and they can mix with traffic. Plus, it doesn't require taking existing properties, as light rail does, so it's cheaper. The construction is also less because you don't need to excavate as much for the streetcar as you would the light rail, and the streetcars are slightly less than light-rail vehicles."

Five Points Business Association executive director Marva Coleman is tentative about endorsing any plan. "I think the community still needs to be a little bit more educated about streetcars," she says. "The reaction, it's mixed. Some are excited, and some are apprehensive because of what happened with light rail. They hope it doesn't create problems for their business, like when light rail went in. I personally don't want it to isolate us from the rest of the light-rail routes. We want it to be technologically correct."

Although Turner plans to hold a public meeting next month to discuss the two options for the D-line, construction isn't expected to start on either Five Points option until 2014.

As for any Colfax streetcar system, until the feds come through with the cash, Walstrom and his cohorts will have to make do with the new "Ghost Trolley" sculpture by Lawrence Argent (creator of the big blue bear) that's scheduled to be installed on Colfax across from the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Aurora next year.

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