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Friday, February 6, was a very big day in Denver transit.
The feds announced $304 million in loans for Union Station, completing the funding necessary for the new transit hub, as well as essentially committing to a $1 billion injection over several years for future FasTracks rail lines.
That means that major transportation projects are finally ready to get under way. So what happens next? When will shovels actually hit the ground, how long will construction take, and how will it impact the public? To find out, Westword checked in with Bill Mosher, owner representative for the Union Station project.
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The federal loan was the last piece of the $480 million financial puzzle that public agencies having been working for years to consolidate in order to pay for Union Station's makeover. Now with it in place, Mosher says, they're going to start building just as soon as they dot the i's and cross the t's on the federal documentation, which may take a few weeks.
Mosher expects to have a final construction schedule in place in a month. But in broad terms, he hopes to see shovels hit the dirt beginning in early April, with the excavation of the underground bus circular that will run northwest from Union Station's historic building to the future location of the light-rail terminal, two blocks away at the Consolidated Main Line freight tracks. Work will also begin on shifting the alignment of the light-rail line that currently stops at Union Station so that it ends at the new terminal.
At the same time, construction will commence on a temporary Amtrak rail line and train station at 20th and Wewatta streets, so that the trains currently coming into Union Station can be relocated there for the duration of construction. (Mosher isn't sure about the cost or availability of commuter parking at the temporary station.)
Once Amtrak's trains have been completely relocated, in a year or so, the existing rails behind Union Station will be torn up to make room for the continued excavation of the underground bus circular. Finally, the new commuter rail and Amtrak lines that will run behind the station will be built, along with the sweeping train room to be built on top of them.
As far as the impact of the work on traffic is concerned, "most of it is vacant land," says Mosher of the construction zone. Sure enough, much of the underground bus circular and the new light-rail terminal will take up land that's currently a large dirt lot. Next year, however, as the underground bus circular makes its way toward Union Station, part of Wewatta Street will be shut down and torn up. At that point, car and pedestrian traffic will be diverted to a street a block away that doesn't yet exist: Chestnut Street, which will run parallel to Wewatta halfway between Union Station and the Consolidated Main Line, and over the underground bus terminal.
The vacant lot where much of this construction is taking place will also eventually sprout new office buildings — but that's based on market conditions, and Mosher thinks such private development may take longer.
Although it's taken years to nail down funding, Mosher says actually building the whole thing will be surprisingly quick: 48 months from start to finish. If all goes as planned, that means the new and improved Union Station will be up and running by the summer of 2014. The light-rail terminal two blocks away should be running even before that, and if FasTracks stays on schedule, trains from DIA will be rumbling into the station by 2015 and from Golden a year later.
Asked about future challenges, Mosher points out the difficulties of wrapping up the project's final design elements, such as nailing down how pedestrians are going to make their way through the underground bus circular and the specifics of the train room behind the historic station.
The Federal Transit Authority, which is issuing the $304 million loan for Union Station, has also been slapped with a lawsuit by the Colorado Rail Passenger Association, which does not like Union Station's new design (the group would prefer to see all the rail lines come together at one location). But while ColoRail members insist that the lawsuit could force developers back to the drawing board, the fact that the FTA made a very public announcement of the Union Station loans two weeks ago suggests that the feds aren't too worried about their legal footing in the matter.