What If? Streetcars a Possible Panacea for Colfax

As Denver becomes a more urban city, it's also becoming more congested. Increasing public transit can help fix the issue, and many cities, from Portland to Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C., are bringing back streetcars to make transit better for residents and visitors.
With the redevelopment of Union Station nearly complete and expansion of the light rail going ahead under RTD's FasTracks program, public transit is in the midst of a resurgence in Denver as well, but there’s still work to be done.

Among Denver’s busiest thoroughfares is Colfax Avenue, reportedly the longest continuous street in the country, stretching more than 25 miles from Aurora to Golden. During rush hour, it's often a clogged artery, with RTD's 15 and 15L bus lines weaving in and out of a crush of traffic.

Another major corridor in Denver, comprised of Broadway and Lincoln Street, helped improve transit with dedicated bus lanes and signage. Now city and RTD officials are considering how to make similar changes to Colfax and one of the options is the return of the streetcar, which ran in the city for more than 50 years until 1950 -- when the Denver Tramway Company decided to switch to trolley coaches, the predecessor to today's buses.

Another major travel corridor in Denver, Speer Boulevard, is also under review for transit improvements. The solution might include a public-private fleet of buses that would better connect Glendale, Cherry Creek with the Golden Triangle and LoDo.

Modernizing transit on ColfaxA Tucson Sun Link streetcar stops at the 3rd and University station in Tucson.

The City and County of Denver has been studying Colfax for public transit improvements for several years. The street is the subject of an ongoing federally funded study, now called the Colfax Corridor Connections study, which grew out of the the Colfax Streetcar Feasibility Study and the Denver Strategic Transportation Plan.

The research narrowed the potential solutions for Colfax down to four, including a light-rail line, and it's now down to three: streetcars, enhanced bus service or bus rapid transit (BRT) that's similar to the lanes on Broadway and Lincoln

"All three of the alternatives have merit and are projected to increase ridership on transit in the East Colfax corridor over the next 20 years," says RTD Senior Transportation Planner/RTD Bicycle Program Coordinator Genevieve Hutchison. "RTD values and favors the most cost-effective mobility solution for our patrons."

The easiest to implement is the enhanced bus. Those would be branded and wrapped for the corridor. They’d also help speed up with bus-signal priority, on-board ticketing and other technologies to enhance the system, explains Tykus Holloway, Project Manager with Denver Department of Public Works. "You do improve operations, travel time with it, but it's a little less of an investment," he says.

The BRT would be a step up from the enhanced bus lane. "During at least peak hour for the majority of the transit route [BRT] runs in its own lane, an exclusive lane," Holloway says. "This [includes] overhead signage and striping on the ground and uses the same kind of technology as the enhanced bus." The BRT plans would also take the right-hand lanes and convert them into dedicated bus lanes at least during rush hours. In addition, "the number of buses you could run up and down the corridor could be increased so you could serve the population better."

The third option, the modern streetcar, is nimbler and lighter than light rail, has a tighter turning radius and, while it would require new tracks along the corridor, it's far less invasive than light rail, which usually requires a dedicated throughway cars couldn’t use. Powered by overhead wires, a streetcar can operate in its own lane or in mixed-flow traffic.

Holloways describes the concept as "similar to Seattle's streetcar and Oregon's streetcar, where cars are in front of the streetcar, behind the streetcar and the streetcar is in its fixed tracks, but it has to stop and start [like] any other vehicle." He points to the DC Streetcar in Washington, D.C., as a template for what Denver could do on Colfax.

Looking to another capitalA DC Streetcar on display at a "streetcar rollout" in 2010.

The DC Streetcar's H/Benning Street Corridor will help connect that city's transportation system in a traditionally underserved area. The system is currently in the testing and certification phase, explains Cherie Gibson, a spokesperson with Washington, D.C.'s District Department of Transportation (DDOT). The first streetcar line is expected to start running later in 2014 and have a big impact on revitalization.

Beyond D.C. and the few historic streetcars that survived into the Automobile Age -- think San Francisco and New Orleans -- there are new systems in Seattle and Portland as well as Salt Lake City, Dallas, Tucson and other cities, and construction is underway on streetcar lines in Cincinnati and Atlanta. New systems typically cost $10 million to $30 million per mile of track, and can employ restored vintage streetcars, replicas, or modern vehicles.

The new streetcar in D.C. is a separate entity from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which runs the bus and metro system in the nation's capital city and region. It has used a SmartTrip Card allowing riders to move from the metro to the bus system with relative ease, and customers (or their employers) can add money to the cards online, at transit hubs and on buses.

Once the streetcars start operating, it's likely they’ll work within the same payment system, making the transit easier, but that is slated to change. "WMATA is planning to phase out SmarTrip in favor of a more modern payment system, and as such, DDOT is prioritizing long-term coordination in its fare policy decisions," Gibson says.   

In Denver, Hutchinson says RTD is starting to implement a Smart Card system with pay stations near transit hubs or online, allowing users to get on public transportation quicker and move from the light rail to the bus seamlessly.

Since the Colfax corridor is so long it requires coordination between multiple municipalities and agencies, so it's not likely that Denver alone would fund a new fleet. "What we've assumed is RTD is the transit provider in the Denver area," Holloway says. If significant enhancements are made, it's likely RTD will be the transit provider under partnerships with all players, he adds.

Don’t expect major changes overnight. "We’re probably a good 10 years out from realizing any [major] improvements," Holloway asserts. "We're trying to implement some immediate near-term solutions which would be adding signal priority." That would allow buses additional "green time" to move through traffic.

Crossing culture on Speer

RTD and Transportation Solutions, a nonprofit transportation management association for southeast Denver, just
"When the buses run only every 30 minutes, people are much more skeptical whether or not they can just hop on a bus," says Transit Solutions Executive Director Rich McClintock. "Fifteen minutes turns out to be a critical point at which people forget about the schedule and just go down and take the next bus coming."
published a study by California-based TMD, the
Southeast Corridor Connector Study, which evaluated the options to better connect Glendale and Cherry Creek with downtown. RTD is considering design changes in 2014 and implementation of changes on the Speer corridor could start as soon as 2015.

"This is one of the busier routes for RTD and that’s why they're considering the possibility of making that service more frequent and phasing that in over the next several years as funding is available at the RTD level for bus route expansion," says Transportation Solutions Executive Director Rich McClintock.

The possible solutions don't require quite as much change as the options for Colfax. "The bus service, currently the 83 and 79 buses, would continue as the backbone of the system with better branding," McClintock explains. "There is discussion underway of whether in addition you could have a branded bus going directly from Union Station…[that] looks different and is not your grandfather's bus and is much more oriented toward travelers as well as people looking to get out for an evening back and forth between Denver’s major entertainment districts without having to drive." That approach would be a new shuttle route, potentially funded by a public-private partnership.

The other major option identified by the study is an enhanced transit corridor, which the study considers the preferred alternative and would increase the frequency of service from 30 minutes off-peak to 15 minutes off-peak, and half that during peak demand.

"Getting between downtown and Cherry Creek and Glendale would become much easier," says McClintock. "When the buses run only every 30 minutes, people are much more skeptical whether or not they can just hop on a bus -- 15 minutes turns out to be a critical point at which people forget about the schedule and just go down and take the next bus coming."

Such an option would take a page from other regional transportation solutions, like Boulder's HOP, SKIP and JUMP buses, Englewood's art Circulator Shuttle and the Belmar Shuttle in Lakewood.

"There is exploration within the business community as well as discussions with the city of Denver and among nonprofits about partnering together on an innovative public-private express service between Union Station and one of the other most visited places in Colorado, the Cherry Creek area," McClintock says. "Increasingly we're seeing that retail destinations are seeing if they can partner with enhanced bus services. There's an economic benefit to the region as well as increased vitalization downtown in the evenings as more people choose to come downtown but leave their cars behind."

And now is the right time for action, he adds. "What’s clear in this case is there's a new connection in downtown with over 100,000 people coming and going from Union Station when the airport and other lines open in 2016," says McClintock. "That's a logical time to be looking at how you can better connect visitors but also residents seeking a live-work-play environment, connecting two urban centers along with the key corridor communities."

This is the second in a three-part "What If?" series by Confluence Denver. A previous installment covered the Greyhound station in Denver; part three looks at the possibility of an Elitch Gardens redevelopment.

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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