Put Your Money on the Train: How Investing in Railways Transformed a City

Share By Megan Anderle

An ambitious expansion of the FasTracks rail system is making Denver a more commuter-friendly — and livable — city.

Denver’s reputation as a haven for outdoors enthusiasts and sustainable living is a stark contrast to its status as one of the most traffic-plagued cities in the country. Now, transportation officials are taking steps to reconcile the two by expanding public transit options, reducing congestion and slashing commuting times.

The promise of an easier commute is arriving in the form of FasTracks, a major expansion of Denver’s rail and light rail system. The system has drastically reduced traffic during rush hour and fostered development in the surrounding area, with numerous apartment complexes and businesses built along rail lines.

“We take 10,000 cars off the road during the morning and night rush hours,” Tom Clark, chief executive of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, told Real Business. “We live in a fairly sensitive environment, so getting people out of their cars was a big deal for our city.”

Reducing Congestion, Pollution

Overhauling public transit in a city known for its suburban sprawl has been quite a feat. The Mile-High City ranks 15th in the nation for the number of hours commuters are delayed by congestion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report.

More than 328,000 commuters now use FasTracks’ six commuter and light rail lines daily, helping to reduce some of the air pollution that is known to obscure the picturesque backdrop of the Rockies.

Bill Sirois, senior manager of transit-oriented development and planning coordination at the Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD), recalls the days when the city’s pollution limited its growth.

“There was a point in the ’90s when we were trying to limit development downtown because air quality was such an issue, but FasTracks has vastly improved air quality,” Sirois said.

The expansion remains a work in progress. A voter-approved program to extend Denver’s North Metro Line should be completed in the next few years. When finished, FasTracks will cover 122 miles of commuter and light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit service across eight counties.

Investing in Denver’s Future

The economic gains from the infrastructure investment have been substantial: the program has injected $2.8 billion into the local economy and created more than 11,000 direct jobs. Every dollar invested in FasTracks’ infrastructure translates to $4 over a 20-year period, economists estimate.

FasTracks has also drawn Fortune 500 businesses, such as DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc., as well as the U.S. Patent Office, which selected Denver specifically for its connectivity.

“The Patent Office was expanding out of Alexandria, Va., and one of the main reasons they came here was transit. We wouldn’t have been a contender if it hadn’t been for our system,” Clark said.

The cherry on top is that the program has few detractors — 85 percent of area residents say FasTracks is a good idea, according a survey by RTD this past spring.

“We have been so excited about this for the past four years,” Golden resident Clare Taylor told the Denver Post in April when the 12.1-mile W Line opened. “We’d watch the construction move along, and we just couldn’t wait until it was finished.”

Benefits Outweigh Costs

Certainly, FasTracks comes at a cost. Officials estimate the total cost of the project exceeds $7 billion, according to RTD Public Relations Manager Lisa Trujillo. The funding comes from a combination of public-private and federal grants as well as a sales tax of 0.4 percent.

However, Sirois believes the benefits of FasTracks far outweigh the expenses. “Light rail isn’t cheap, but from our perspective, it works,” he said. “Each corridor we’ve opened has exceeded expectations in terms of bringing jobs into the area, reducing pollution and increasing the mobility of the city.”

The biggest strength of the program is it operates regionally, something not all metropolitan transit systems do, said Clark. FasTracks has been successful because officials from all over the area came together to build the system, he said.

Clark said he hopes transit officials in other cities see the big picture of transportation the way Denver has.

“Metropolitan regions are the engines of economic growth, and if we’re going to continue to be a global competitors, they need to think regionally,” he said. “That means having multiple transit options all over the area.”

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