A dispute between lower-downtown business owners and the Regional Transportation District has kept 16th Street Mall shuttle buses off the $2 million, three-block-long extension of the mall to Wynkoop Street. Exasperated LoDo leaders are now planning to fund their own shuttle to move visitors around Denver's booming entertainment district.
The mall extension was funded by Denver voters in a 1989 bond election. Many voters assumed RTD would run its popular shuttles, which now stop at the Market Street Station, all the way to Wynkoop Street. But RTD--which estimates it would cost $120,000 per year to run the shuttles into LoDo--insists that local businesses pick up half the cost.
"There's no service, and as far as I know, there's no planned service," says Diane Blackman, president of the Lower Downtown District Inc. "It's our position that taxpayers felt the mall extension would include shuttle service."
Blackman insists that the lack of a shuttle has hurt lower downtown. "There's people who come to Market Street Station and think it's the end of the line," she adds. "Tourists may not realize lower downtown is here."
LoDo businesses and property owners have been feuding with RTD over the issue for the past year. RTD insists that it never promised to extend the shuttles to Wynkoop Street. While most Denverites view the mall as a pedestrian amenity, the transportation agency sees it as a bus corridor to move its passengers between Market Street Station and Civic Center Station.
"When the 16th Street Mall was first built, it was intended as a transit mall," says Andrew Hudson, a spokesman for RTD. "Over the years it's taken on a whole different role."
Hudson says that RTD is under pressure to expand bus and light-rail service to the suburbs, which makes finding funds for new downtown service all the more difficult.
"The bottom line is funds," he maintains. "How can we afford to do it? We don't want to slight the 16th Street Mall extension, but we have a lot of funding requests."
Phil Anderson, who represents central Denver on the RTD board, predicts the lack of shuttle service will become more of an issue as the Tattered Cover Book Store expands and new retail shops open between Blake and Wynkoop streets. Anderson has been huddling informally with downtown businesspeople to try to hash out a compromise. He also wants to convince his fellow boardmembers to pick up the bill for expanding the shuttle service.
"There's really not that much activity yet in that area, but that will change," he says. "The mall is the key to our transit system in the whole area. Ultimately, that shuttle service should go far into the Central Platte Valley." Anderson says one problem with extending the shuttle service is a lack of buses, but he's trying to work out an agreement that will provide some type of limited service on the mall extension.
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As traffic grows in LoDo, local businesses have decided they may have to take matters into their own hands and fund a circulator bus to move crowds between parking lots and popular nightspots. Blackman says her group may sponsor bus service between the parking lots on the north side of 17th Street and the rest of LoDo, without RTD.
"It would be funded by parking lot owners, bars and restaurants," she says. "We'd drum the funds out of those who would benefit the most."
As for the mall extension, the dispute over shuttle service even threatens basic maintenance of the two-block sandstone walkway. Property taxes for businesses along the mall extension were supposed to rise to cover the cost of snow and trash removal and other services, but property owners say they were told that regular shuttles would be part of the deal, and they have refused to accept a higher assessment.
"They can't increase the assessment level to maintain the mall," says Blackman. "Nobody will even know how much it costs to maintain it until a winter has gone by.