By Jody Hope Strogoff
STATE BILL COLORADO
It seemed only fitting that the Regional Transportation District’s legislative reception last week was held at the hub of Denver’s bustling newly renovated train depot — or, more accurately, right underneath lower downtown’s Union Station in a space called The Gallery.
The basement-level enclave with a rustic, ’20s-era feel featured custom artwork created for Denver Union Station and provided Colorado lawmakers and lobbyists shelter from the crowded terminal and all the associated people traffic above, as well as the noise of the rumbling rail lines outside. From a more symbolic viewpoint, the Jan. 28 event served to showcase the eight-county, 2,340 square mile transportation district’s latest accomplishments under FasTracks, the 2004 voter-approved plan to expand transit across the Denver metro region.
There was much to celebrate.
The local public affairs firm of Brandeberry-McKenna arranged for legislators to hear from several transportation officials who provided updates about various rapid transit routes and projections for the future. Lawmakers learned about the 122 miles of new light and commuter rail including the W Line which opened in 2013, the Denver Union Station bus concourse which premiered in 2014, the anticipated opening of the Flatiron Flyer U.S. 36 rapid transit line this April, and the debut of the B Line segment to Westminster, the G Line to Arvada and Wheat Ridge, and the R Line through Aurora later this year.
Legislators were also briefed about the much-anticipated opening of the 23-mile electric commuter rail line between the train station and Denver International Airport. Work on the project began back in 1997 when RTD conducted an investment study on recommendations for commuter rail, light rail, highway widening and transportation management. Ten years later, Federal Transit Administration officials selected the East Rail and Gold lines for a public-private partnership pilot program, which gave birth to the Eagle P3 project. In 2011, RTD’s FasTracks received a $1.03 billion full funding grant agreement from the FTA, the largest award at that time by the Obama administration. The last rail was laid in 2014 and the first vehicles arrived in Denver shortly afterwards. On April 22 of this year, the line will officially open to the public as the University of Colorado A Line.
As the intermodal hub for the region, Union Station integrates RTD’s light rail and commuter rail lines, Amtrak rail service, regional buses, taxis, shuttles, and bicycle and pedestrian access. RTD purchased the site in accordance with a jointly funded intergovernmental agreement among RTD, the City and County of Denver, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Denver Regional Council of Governments in 2001. Construction began in 2010, and the following year the new light rail station opened at the west end of Union Station. In 2012, RTD awarded a contract to Union Station Alliance to redevelop the historic Union Station building, and in 2014, grand-opening ceremonies were held.
Tom Tobiassen, chairman of RTD and district representative from the largest portion of Aurora and sections of nearby unincorporated Arapahoe County, explained that FasTracks involves more than just the Denver metro area. And as RTD Director Kent Bagley from District H likewise emphasized in his remarks, the entire region and state have benefitted to the tune of $5.5 billion to date. FasTracks has led to the creation of 15,000 full-time jobs since 2005, and payoffs of loans will easily be accomplished through sales use and property taxes.
In fact, Bagley pointed out, revenue in 2015-16 is about 274 percent higher than original estimates made in the 2009 recession by Coldwell Banker real estate. Sales and use taxes through October of last year were up 617 percent over what had been forecast. And more good news, Bagley told lawmakers. Activity around the station building is generating a tremendous amount of revenue to pay off the two $150 million bonds in 2033 instead of 2044 as had originally been predicted.
So how has RTD been able to accomplish such lofty goals?
Dr. Claudia Folska, RTD board member from District E in the central part of the district, took a shot.
Last August, she explained to guests at the legislative reception, she dined with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was in town to meet with local political, business and community leaders about their successful implementation of FasTracks through innovative joint development and public-private partnerships.
“And he nudges me,” Folska continued, and asks, ‘how’d I do it?’ He wanted to know how we were able to pull this off.”
It was actually a really simple idea, Folska replied.
“All you need to do is get all your local, state and federal elected officials, all your stakeholders and your constituents to agree on the vision of making the impossible somehow possible, and staying on target for a couple of decades,” she deadpanned.
The process, she acknowledged a moment later, was not so easy to implement. But fortunately, Folska continued, Colorado’s reliance on working together has proved beneficial.
“What is unique in Colorado is that we have a single voice and a single message and that’s what you see here,” she told Gimenez. “We can bring people to Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs, Ft. Collins into this district and beyond again.
“The University of Colorado A line will open on April 22. You’ll be able to ride your bike from Golden and back. We partner with all of our agencies,” Folska said as she summed up the district’s winning prescription for success: “We all work together to improve the economic development for the great state of Colorado.”