Union Station may become Denver's gateway again -- if it stays on track

Passengers disembark from the rumbling trains by the hundreds, by the thousands. They've arrived at this station from Aurora and Littleton, from Golden and Boulder, even from over the Continental Divide and across the Great Plains. As the trains empty and creep away from the platforms, others pull in, disgorging more passengers.

The new arrivals stream across the yard, under sweeping wrought-iron canopies, through granite arches and into the cathedral-like train room: vaulted ceiling overhead, two-story windows, grand chandeliers. Lines form at ticket windows, out-of-towners stop by information desks and peruse restaurants and gift shops. Beyond it all, through the station's front doors, lies the Mile High City.

Welcome to Union Station, the gateway to Denver.

Such was the scene roughly a century ago. Union Station opened at 17th and Wynkoop streets in 1881 as a consolidated depot for the many railway interests in Denver, and its dramatic proportions — it was the largest building in the city — made it clear that it would be the connection between the young municipality and the rest of the world. Soon the station was welcoming as many as ninety trains a day, bringing with them laborers, merchants and visionaries, not to mention celebrities, presidents and royalty.

But after World War II, rail lines abdicated their reign to freeways and jetliners. Today, Union Station stands as a quiet shell of its former self, its great room often empty save for a straggle of passengers waiting for the two Amtrak trains that roll in each day, or the weekly runs of the Ski Train to Winter Park. While the building remains one of the most recognizable in the city, it has become an artifact, a quaint remembrance of a time when people took the advice of the station's iconic, illuminated "Travel by Train."

But Union Station could once again welcome rail passengers by the hundreds and thousands. In 2001, a consortium of public agencies purchased the station from its private owners in hopes that it would become the central hub of a future transportation system.

That system materialized in 2004, when voters approved FasTracks: 119 miles of new rail lines and 18 miles of bus rapid transit across the Front Range. It was labeled the most ambitious new public transportation system in the country, and Union Station was to be its cornerstone.

Now, after years of planning, financing for the station's redevelopment is nearly in place. A final price — around $477 million — should be set by the end of the year, and construction will begin soon after. Then progress could move quickly — a sprawling new train shed, a light-rail terminal, an underground bus terminal and pedestrian walkway, an extended mall shuttle and a renovated historic station, all surrounded by lively new public spaces — with everything expected to be complete by summer 2012 and ready for the 200,000 daily passengers that FasTracks is expected to bring to the station.

That is, if everything goes as planned.

Though some of the region's most powerful figures and a well-regarded local developer are leading the project, the rebirth of Union Station will be one of the most complex and challenging undertakings ever attempted in Denver: a convoluted labyrinth of rail lines, bus infrastructure, pedestrian walkways and private development that needs to fit into a crowded corner of downtown.

There are passionate and conflicting public opinions on everything from layout and design to parking shortfalls and the social benefits the development should provide. And, most pressing, a gargantuan price tag and limited funding sources in a time of skyrocketing construction costs.

The original Union Station was built in less than two years and cost $525,000. It will take five times as long and cost nearly a hundred times that much to again make it the gateway to the city.

The plan to buy Union Station was radical, even a bit crazy.

For starters, the station had multiple owners: real-estate company Trillium Corporation, the Union Pacific Railroad and local real-estate mogul Pat Broe. And the property surely wouldn't come cheap: The city, in a 1988 deal to save the station from potential demolition, had tweaked zoning on the site to allow for the possible construction of two 22-story towers that added millions to its value. Beyond that, FasTracks had yet to be proposed, or bankrolled. In fact, just three years earlier, in 1997, transit boosters had crafted an ambitious proposal for light rail in and around Denver called "Guide the Ride"; voters had handily rejected it.

"It was a tough, tough time," recalls Regional Transportation District general manager Cal Marsella. "Some [RTD] boardmembers called it a white elephant."

"We left trains behind," says Charles Albi, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden and co-author of Denver's Railroads: The Story of Union Station and the Railroads of Denver. "For years and years, they said one more lane on I-25 is going to solve all of our problems. No one was thinking, 'Is there a better way of doing this?'"