Denver Continues to Grow and Improve Transit

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By Barb Thoman, Executive Director

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The newly renovated Union Station in Denver was buzzing with activity when I visited it with my family over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The historic train station, on the north end of the downtown core, reopened as a major transit hub and boutique hotel this past July. Regional buses, light rail, free mall shuttles, and Amtrak trains all converge at the depot.

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Denver’s Union Station combines a major transit hub with hotel, restaurant, and retail options.

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High-speed commuter rail service running 23 miles between the depot and the airport will begin operation in 2016. One of the new electric rail cars that will run on the East Rail Line was on display over the holiday weekend. The self-propelled train, which looks somewhat like an Amtrak passenger railcar, will operate at speeds of 79 mph on corridor adjacent to freight rail. Making just six stops, those trains will whisk riders between downtown Denver and Denver International Airport in 35 minutes. Some may remember that Denver moved its airport out of the city back in 1995, distancing jet noise and air emissions from populated areas of the region.

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One of Denver’s new high-speed commuter rail vehicles.

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Adjacent to Denver’s Union Station is a new, modern, underground bus terminal that opened in May 2014. It primarily serves passengers riding regional, intercity, and express buses. Bus passengers wait in a bright, warm corridor separated by glass doors from the 22 bus bays. The facility even has restrooms! Light rail trains are one level up and just north of the bus facility.

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A weekend stop at Union Station’s new underground bus terminal.

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All this new transit in Denver was made possible with the passage in 2004 of FasTracks, a major transit funding package. FasTracks increased the regional sales tax for transit to a full penny, less than in Seattle, but significant enough to build and operate 122 miles of new light rail and commuter rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, and a wider network of bus service. (In comparison, the regional sales tax for transit in the Twin Cities region is 1/4 cent.)

The area around Union Station has become a significant site of transit-oriented development. Formerly a freight rail yard, the 20-acre area is flourishing with high-density residential and commercial redevelopment.

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Transit-oriented development is growing in the area around Union Station.

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It’s amazing to see Denver and other peer regions around the country continue to benefit from increased investments in transit. Of course, if the Minnesota legislature votes to increase transit funding in 2015 as part of a comprehensive transportation funding package, the Twin Cities metro would be poised to join them.

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