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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast