Connecting Denver's Transit Deserts

With the $5.3 billion FasTracks buildout hitting a crescendo, the regional rail network is a model for municipalities near and far. But what about the intra-city transit system to support its world-class status?
In 2004, voters approved the Regional Transportation District (RTD) plan for one of the largest transit expansion plans in the country, with a promise of 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail by 2017.

Despite setbacks -- including a significantly increased price tag and a North Metro line that will not obtain funding until 2040 -- FasTracks represents a regional achievement that introduced public transit as an attractive alternative when moving between Denver's urban core and the suburbs.

However, as Denver experiences rapid growth -- the city's population increased by more than 18,000 in 2015, and an additional 1.1 million are projected to move to the metro area by 2040 -- there is a growing spotlight on the city's intra-city transit system.

As Crissy Fanganello, director of transportation for the transportation and mobility department of Denver Public Works says, "You can manage congestion but you can't fix it." She notes Denver needs to draw on infrastructure more efficiently so that people have access to public transit that is comfortable, safe and works for them.

These sentiments have been compounded into numerous past planning efforts to re-imagine Denver's intra-city transit, including 2002's Blueprint Denver, an integrated land use and transportation plan, and 2008's Denver Strategic Transportation Plan, which reviewed citywide options to implement past transportation strategies. Additional studies have explored the feasibility of bringing back Colfax Avenue's streetcars and identifying transit improvements along the East Colfax corridor.

However, these past investments have not necessarily translated into substantial action. Nate Currey, RTD's senior manager of public relations, is the first to admit that RTD's attention and funds in recent years have gone to FasTracks, and an intra-city transit plan for Denver does not currently exist.

He notes RTD maintains 38 jurisdictions and that their strategy must call for a "balanced, district-wide approach," which can't always put Denver at the forefront of focus.

Nonetheless, Currey believes 2016 is an "apex year" for RTD with the opening of five light rail lines, and that once the regional structure is built, it will be time to determine "how to fill in the gaps" within the city's limits.

Challenges and gaps

In spite of increasing congestion, Denver struggles to distance itself from its car-centric culture.

For instance, a 2015 survey by the Downtown Denver Partnership found that people who live within five miles or less of downtown are still more likely to drive than use bus or rail service. RTD also found a decrease in its 2015 ridership report as compared to 2014.  

While some are using alternative modes of "transit" -- specifically walking, which increased since 2014 -- it largely speaks to the opportunity cost associated with using Denver's public transit.

Multi-modal hubs are part of the transit solution.The challenges facing Denver's public transit reflect a system in need of enhancements to create an attractive alternative to the car: inadequate frequency and unsatisfactory on-time performance of buses; bus stops and light rail lines that do not reflect where density booms have occurred; transit technology -- such as real-time data and smart-card systems -- that significantly lagged behind other cities; and the lack of longer-term solutions like streetcars or bus rapid transit.

These gaps are reflected in RTD's most recent customer satisfaction survey, which showcases dissatisfaction with bus services, including on-time performance, amount of travel time from origin to destination, reliability of transfer connections, feeling safe at the bus stop and frequency of buses on routes.

Overall, of 40 performance indicators surveyed, only one was found to be both important to customers and something in which RTD met expectations.

While light rail fared better than most indicators in the survey, the system still struggles in numerous arenas, such as adequate hours of operation and proper wayfinding. As noted by Dace West, executive director of Mile High Connects, light rail is also more likely to attract particular demographics, namely higher-income customers who can afford to avoid the greater inconvenience of the bus system.  

In 2016, the Hancock administration announced the launch of Denveright, a process that will produce four plans evolving Denver's land use, mobility, parks and recreational resources. It will include Denver Moves: Transit, a long-term plan to define and implement an improved public and multi-modal transit system.  

Denver Moves: Transit's task force -- made up of government, citizen and nonprofit community leaders -- is "tasked with being champions for the process and taking information and outcomes back to their constituencies," says Kristina Evanoff, project planner for Denver Moves: Transit.

While Blueprint Denver will serve as the city's larger vision for transportation planning, Denver Moves: Transit will seek operational solutions while keeping the comprehensive context in mind.

The task force plans to address transit through numerous lenses, including social equity, the role of technology, integration with pedestrian and bike plans, and the use of public-private partnerships.

Transportation and social equity

Given the city's rising cost of living -- which contributes to gentrification and lower-income populations moving away from the urban core -- West argues that social equity must be a part of any solutions considered.

Within RTD's jurisdiction, 52 percent of bus users are transit-dependent and 56 percent earn less than $35,000 a year, illustrating the overlap between low income and transit dependence. This also points out that while more affluent populations can supplement their public transit use with other modes of transportation, like Uber or car2go, for many, these options are financially out of reach. Other options considered affordable -- walking or biking -- may not be realistic given the long distances people often travel to work, such as those coming from communities in southwest Denver or Montbello.

"The ability of people to have physical mobility to get to social mobility cannot be overstated; it affects where they live, their access to services, educational opportunities and jobs, and the time they can spend with their families versus being in route," West explains.

Fanganello has similar sentiments in that embedding social equity in transit is "hugely important both to Mayor Hancock's administration and the city as a whole." She also points out the interconnected nature of transportation and housing.

"If people are moving away from the city center to save money, but they don't take into account the increased cost in transportation, more people could stay in Denver if transportation costs were kept down," she says.

This idea underlines RTD's decision in 2016 to increase its base one-way fare to $2.60, which equates to more than 30 percent of a low-income individual's hourly wage if earning Colorado's minimum wage of $8.31 an hour.

While RTD currently provides $6 million annually to 300 nonprofit organizations to distribute free bus passes, Currey notes that RTD is not a social service agency and that they are not best equipped to identify these needs. However, both RTD and Denver Moves: Transit are planning to further look at the transit needs of diverse communities in 2017, including RTD leading a district-by-district communications and public outreach plan, and Denver Moves: Transit conducting an outreach campaign that will include public meetings, pop-up events and surveys to better understand the transit issues people face.

Improving the system

Current improvements with intra-city transit include the renovation of Civic Center Station and the 2014 completion of Denver Union Station, which will see  more than 104,000 daily touch points by the end of 2016. The storied depot "hasn't seen that type of traffic since the 1920s and 1930s," notes Currey.

A rendering of the new Civic Center Station.While Fanganello highlights several improvement possibilities -- including a dedicated bus lane on Colfax, the potential for bus rapid transit and more rapid flashing beacons -- she suggested Denver will be waiting for recommendations from Denver Moves: Transit.

Ken Schroeppel, assistant professor with the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at University of Colorado Denver and founder of the DenverInfill and DenverUrbanism blogs, foresees both short- and long-term solutions to Denver's intra-city transit gaps.

One short-term option is the city buying up enhanced service from RTD, similar to the City of Boulder's investment in RTD's HOP, SKIP and JUMP routes. This would allow Denver to pay RTD to increase frequency and expand hours along congested routes. In the meantime, money could be raised for longer-term solutions, and users could have an improved transit experience that builds ridership.

Schroeppel also notes that by the time long-term infrastructure solutions are funded and implemented -- which could include bus rapid transit along major thoroughfares, a network of streetcars, more dedicated bus lanes, new bus lines in transit deserts and even additional rail lines within the city -- the necessary ridership will already exist.  

Funding -- or lack thereof -- is the biggest hurdle. For Denver Moves: Transit, Fanganello explains, "Demand and desire to make improvements will outweigh available funding, so prioritization of projects will be necessary."

While vague about potential funding options, she said that the task force is "being thoughtful from the beginning" with determining funding needs for proposed projects.

Schroeppel believes Denver will take an "all-of-the-above" approach, which could include federal dollars; a general obligation bond for capital improvements (such as for a streetcar line); a sales or gasoline tax; tax increment financing; or putting an additional fee on commodities like motor vehicle registrations.

Schroeppel says it's also unlikely RTD's widespread jurisdiction would be willing to support a new tax to pay for Denver-specific improvements.

"However, the all-of-the-above approach would put some burden on Denver citizens, while other options, like gasoline and sales taxes, would distribute costs to non-Denver citizens," he says. A similar strategy was utilized for expanding the Colorado Convention Center and the planned revitalization of the National Western Complex, which leverages lodging and car-rental taxes.

Both West and Schroeppel point out that the metro area chose to build out its regional transit system before focusing on intra-city transit, whereas in many cities, the approach has been opposite.

"However, in terms of national peers, not many cities of Denver's size have a regional system to our scale," Schroeppel says. "Now it's time to fill in urban-centric transit, and because of densification, people are starting to demand it, which will support change."

Similarly, Fanganello points out that transit can't be ignored -- it is one piece that weaves into the larger quality of life for a community, alongside other factors like economic vitality and placemaking. In this context, collaboration is a must.

"There is a saying that 'we all have to work together to row together' in order to achieve our goals," she says.

Read more articles by Camron Bridgford.

Camron Bridgford is a Denver-based freelance writer focused on  the arts, urbanism and economic development.
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