It's the Rail Thing

Saving already broken ground on an expansion of Denver's light-rail line south to Littleton, the Regional Transportation District now has its sights set on another ten-mile route from downtown to the western suburbs. But some of the residents in the path of the project say they don't want it in their backyard--which, in several instances, could literally be where RTD's electric train is headed as it negotiates a narrow right-of-way through a densely populated neighborhood.

The plan to extend light rail from Union Station to 6th and Simms, with most of the route following the old Associated Railroads tracks along West 13th Avenue, has been designated as the "locally preferred alternative" for mass transit in the West Corridor by a citizens' advisory committee (CAC) composed of area residents and business owners. The recommendation, reached after two years of meetings and studies, has been hailed by supporters as a "citizen-driven" decision that resulted from an "extensive public involvement process."

But critics of the plan charge that the citizens' group was used to rubber-stamp a project RTD has been pushing for nearly two decades; that an unscheduled vote on the matter was taken with only a fraction of the CAC membership present; and that the $250 million line, if built, would serve a debatable number of downtown commuters at the expense of a quiet, well-established neighborhood.

"I agree that light rail is needed in some places, but I don't feel it needs to go right down the middle of a residential area," says Lakewood resident Bonnie Ferguson, who's been battling efforts to develop passenger transit along the railroad tracks since 1980. "We have a lot of older, retired people in this area that have worked very hard to put what equity they could into their homes. This is going to destroy everything."

The plan's boosters characterize Ferguson's camp as a handful of not-in-my-backyard folks who are seeking to thwart the least costly, least "impactful" solution to traffic congestion on the west side. "The criticism that this was a done deal--I don't think that is valid," says CAC spokesman Bill Johnston. "What was coming out at the end was some decided opposition by property owners, and that's not unusual."

The proposal is one of three recently completed studies of transit alternatives in the metro area. The Colorado Department of Transportation has recommended another light-rail line adjoining I-25 from downtown southeast to the Denver Tech Center, and the Denver Regional Council of Governments is backing commuter rail service on existing tracks along I-70 from downtown to Denver International Airport. The total cost of the three lines and additional road improvements is projected to be more than $1.3 billion, but no funding has been obtained for any of the projects yet, and all three must also receive final approval from the DRCOG board.

A maverick faction of the ever-fractious RTD board has been lobbying to make light rail's next move to the southeast, but it seems likely that the western line will be the agency's next big project because of its relatively low cost. Even before the CAC made its recommendation, RTD chairman Ben Klein was telling reporters that the western line was "the best deal you can get" and should receive top priority.

But if light rail heads west, it will be the project's first major penetration of a residential area--with all of the political headaches that go with it. The existing line to Five Points skirts a few houses on Welton Street, but a proposed expansion through Park Hill to Stapleton was dropped a few years ago in the face of strong neighborhood opposition. The Littleton line now under construction will travel a largely industrial corridor to Mineral Avenue.

Supporters say that a light-rail line along West 13th makes perfect sense--and has historical precedent on its side. A steam-powered locomotive hauled passengers from Denver to Golden along the same tracks as far back as the 1890s. According to Charles Albi, executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, the line was electrified a few years later and carried an "oversized streetcar" known as the Interurban line until Denver Tramway ceased its trolley operations in 1950. A variety of carriers, operating under the banner of Associated Railroads, hauled freight from downtown to Lakewood warehouses until the late 1980s, when the route was abandoned; RTD then spent $3 million buying up the right-of-way.

Ferguson and other opponents say CAC's recommendation was entirely predictable, given RTD's sponsorship of the study and its existing investment in developing rail along the Associated tracks. "I quit going to the CAC meetings last summer because I got so disgusted by the orchestration that was going on by RTD's consultants," says Georgia Keller, whose home abuts the proposed line. "They ran the meetings, and they used the citizens' committee to legitimize the choice they already made."

RTD boardmember Jon Caldara, an outspoken critic of the agency's light-rail plans, says he's heard agency staff refer to the West Corridor study as "the light-rail study"--even while other forms of transit were still under consideration by the CAC. "I've gone to a couple of these MIS [Major Investment Study] meetings, and I can't stomach them," he says. "This was a conclusion looking for a study."

CAC members who voted for the light-rail line acknowledge that RTD's ownership of the right-of-way made the route more economical, but they insist that wasn't the only factor or even a major one in their decision. Faced with worsening traffic on the Sixth Avenue freeway that has spilled over to West Colfax, West Alameda and various side streets, the group looked at more than a dozen possible solutions, from monorail and subways to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the freeway itself.

Most of the suggestions, Johnston says, were either technologically unproven or too costly. For example, widening the freeway to add HOV lanes would involve removing more than a hundred homes, compared to the twenty to thirty residences that may have to be acquired along West 13th; and West Colfax merchants were adamantly opposed to the kind of bottleneck a light-rail line on their street would create.

"The committee looked at every alternative," says RTD project director Andrea Garcia. "Yes, this [alignment] has impacts, but it has the least impacts and the most benefits for the corridor."

CAC member Dave Ruchman points out that the most vocal critics of the group's decision declined to attend most of the meetings. "When they stopped coming, we were still a long way from a decision," he says. "The people who show up for meetings, whether it's the city council or the U.S. Senate--who else should make the decision? For these Johnny-come-latelies to come in and try to delegitimize the process, that's not fair."

Although the CAC had around 110 residents and business owners in the affected area on its mailing list, only twenty or thirty "regulars" followed the process from beginning to end. Ferguson says she knows of several CAC members, herself included, who didn't receive prior notification of the January 30 meeting at which the vote for light rail was taken. (RTD's Garcia insists that mailing was handled no differently from the others.) In any case, the vote wasn't on the agenda for that meeting; in fact, a notice sent out the day before the meeting indicated that the vote would take place the following week.

Ruchman says he made a motion for a vote "for discussion purposes" and was surprised when the group ended up favoring the 13th Avenue line by a tally of 14-1. "We didn't pre-cook this," he says. "I hadn't talked to anyone prior to the meeting about this, and yet the group was overwhelmingly in favor of light rail."

The recommendation has since been endorsed by various local government and business interests, including several West Colfax car dealers, who like the idea of customers arriving by light rail a couple of blocks away rather than tying up auto traffic on their own thoroughfare. RTD estimates that the line will carry 24,000 daily riders by the year 2015--half of them from within the corridor, half from outlying areas--but those numbers have come under attack at public meetings. ("You can't have local service and rapid transit for commuters at the same time," Keller argues.)

The plan has adherents even among those who live adjacent to the tracks, but other homeowners have raised a host of issues about noise, safety, and increased traffic in the neighborhood from commuters going to and from the train. Although the line won't be operational for at least eight years, some fear an immediate dip in property values and a long-term slide in quality of life. The west Denver portion of the route rolls through a series of parks, but in Lakewood, many homes are set back only a few yards from the right-of-way, which will have to accommodate double tracks.

In some cases, Garcia notes, residents have mistakenly extended their property line into the right-of-way. "Some of them have put structures that are actually in our right-of-way, and others have put fences there," Garcia says. "People say there's no way to get through there because the houses are so close, but in some cases it's because they have come onto RTD property."

Before it squeezes its train through the heart of Lakewood, RTD must first walk an even finer line with voters and the legislature. The agency has embarked on a barrage of "town meetings" designed to build support for its twenty-year transit plan, which will hinge on voters approving a sales tax increase expected to be on the November ballot. At the same time, the state legislature is considering a bill that would require RTD to competitively bid up to 50 percent of its operations--a move that boardmember Caldara insists could save enough money to fund many transit improvements without a tax increase.

The privatization effort is being pushed by Republican state representative Penn Pfiffner, whose district includes a hefty slice of the west corridor. Pfiffner is openly skeptical of RTD's arguments in favor of the western line and views the project as doing more harm than good. "You're introducing an industrial element into a residential area," he says. "You can't landscape this; you can't put a tree down the middle of the track. You're going to have a big, ugly, open scar running through what is now a very green and settled area."

Pfiffner notes that an increasing amount of Denver's traffic congestion consists of people traveling from suburb to suburb rather than to and from the city core; RTD needs more flexible solutions than light rail, he suggests. "The reason why most people want light rail," he says, "is that they're sitting in lines of traffic and thinking, 'If only all these other people would go on the light rail, then I could drive my car.' Unfortunately, everyone's thinking everyone else will use it."

Sitting in her backyard, fifty feet from where the train might some day clatter by, Georgia Keller refuses to give up. "I don't want to sell my home," she says. "It's such a bumbling thing, I figure we'll all be senile before it'll ever be built."

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