Union Station: What comes next in Denver's ambitious rail plans, part 2

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 several future FasTracks rail lines.

That means several major train projects long discussed are finally ready to be built. So what happens next? When will shovels actually hit the ground, how long will construction take and how it impact all us in the meantime? To find out, Westword checked in with some of the folks behind the big digs. Here's what we learned about Union Station from Bill Mosher, the owner representative for the Union Station project. To find out more about FasTracks, click here.

When will we see construction? The federal loan was the last piece of the $480 million financial puzzle 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 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 about 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 this new light-rail 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 specifics commuter parking at the temporary station, or how much it will cost.)

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 on top of the bus circular, along with the sweeping train room that will contain these rail lines.

Where will we see construction, and how will it impact traffic? "The good thing is, 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 dirt lot. Next year, however, as the underground bus circular makes its way towards Union Station, Wewatta street behind the station will be shut down and torn up. At that point, car and pedestrian traffic will be diverted to a new street a block away that doesn't yet exist: Chestnut Street, which will run parallel to Wewatta halfway between Union and the Consolidated Main Line and over the underground bus terminal.

The vacant lot where much of this construction is taking place will eventually sprout major new office buildings - although since that development based on market conditions, Mosher thinks such private investment may take a bit longer, in the 10-year range.

When will construction be complete? While it's taken years to nail down funding, Mosher says 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 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.

What challenges lie ahead? For one thing, says Mosher, there's 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 (they'd prefer to see all the rail lines come together at one location, right at the historic station). While ColoRail members insist the lawsuit, which is making its way through the court system, could force developers back to the drawing board, the very fact the FTA made a very public announcement of the Union Station loans two weeks ago suggests the feds aren't too worried about their legal footing in the matter.