FasTracks: What comes next in Denver's ambitious rail plans, part 1

Last Friday 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 FasTracks from Pauletta Tonilas, the program's public information manager. Tune in tomorrow to learn about Union Station.


When will we see construction? One FasTrack line is already well on its way -- the West Corridor running from Union Station to Golden and Lakewood, scheduled to be completed in 2012 and open to the public a year later. New access ramps and other improvements are also nearly complete for a new bus rapid transit corridor between Denver and Boulder along US-36

Now another line is poised to begin: The East Corridor from Union Station to Denver International Airport. Since the line's part of FasTrack's Eagle P3 public-private partnership, RTD will soon be considering proposals from two private developers interested in tackling the project. Once the final team is selected this summer, Tonilas hopes construction will break ground in August.

If all goes as planned with federal funding, the second phase of Eagle P3 will begin sometime in 2011, says Tonilas. That includes the construction of the Gold Line, from Union Station to Arvada and Wheat Ridge, as well as part of the planned Northwest Rail Corridor, which will extend commuter rail up to 71st Avenue in Westminster.

Where will we see construction, and how will it impact traffic? The East Corridor will be built mostly within railroad right-of-way along Smith Road in north Denver, then will run parallel to Peña Boulevard to the airport. The Gold Line will run north from Union Station along existing rail corridors, then turn west and follow alongside Interstate 70, ending at Ward Road in Wheat Ridge.

Tonlias says construction won't significantly impact traffic along I-70 or other major thoroughfares, and any work shutting down side roads will be done at night or low-traffic hours.

When will construction be complete? The bus rapid transit corridor to Boulder will be complete by this summer, speeding up bus commute times along US-36 by about fifteen minutes each way. The West Corridor to Golden will be complete in 2012 and open to the public a year later. Tonilas says the East Corridor to DIA should be up and running by 2015, and the Gold Line is scheduled to be operational in 2016.

How will all these new lines impact daily life? Tonilas offers an attractive scenario: Imagine stepping on a train at Union Station and getting off at the DIA terminal 29 minutes later -- without those pricey taxi or parking fees.

What challenges lie ahead? Funding is the biggest problem by far. While the completion of Eagle P3 will signify that about 60 percent of the FasTracks plan will have been built, RTD is still short $2.4 billion needed to construct the rest. That includes an I-225 rail corridor in Aurora, an eighteen-mile North Metro line into Adams County, short extensions for the already existing Southeast and Southwest rail lines, and the full build-out of the Northwest line to Boulder and Longmont.

The timing of all this additional work appears to be dependent on when -- and if -- RTD convinces voters to pass another sales tax to fund it. If, for example, RTD's board of directors decides to pursue the sale tax in 2010 and it passes, the whole shebang could be wrapped by 2017. If the board gets the tax through in 2012, FasTrack's completion will be pushed back to 2019.

And if there's no additional sales tax? Tonilas says the work will still all get done -- but not until 2042. And by that point, it will likely be pointless since we'll all have flying Jetsons cars.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner