One Day on the Denver Light Rail

Confluence Denver's intrepid editor took it upon himself to ride the city's entire light rail network in one day. Here's what he saw, from growing nodes to needed connections.
When I moved back to Colorado from Chicago after college, I remember lamenting the loss of the L train. 

That was 1995, the year after the light rail first started running in Denver, but I lived nowhere near it back then and it only ran for a little more than five miles through the heart of the city.

Things have obviously changed. I bought a house in 2003 in large part due to the easy access to the city's light rail network, which has expanded to 48 miles in the two decades since and is slated to more than triple in size in 2016 with several new lines that are part of the FasTracks expansion.

The obvious difference between Denver and Chicago: Denver is growing up around the rail after most of the metro area was built with the car in mind. That can make it a bit tougher from a development point of view.

I figure the best way to survey the system is to ride the entire RTD rail network in a day and report what I see. Last Thursday, that's exactly what I did.

One day, 86 stops, 96 miles there and back

At the Evans Station, I buy a day pass at 9:15 a.m. after unavoidable, puppy-related circumstances made for a late start.

I catch the next train, a northbound C that's mostly empty after the early rush. The train ascends over the Shattuck site and drops down before passing the Gates site, both targets for redevelopment.

The I-25 and Broadway stop is next, surrounded by parking lots. A station area plan is in the works. Less than a mile north at Alameda Station, one of the city's most transit-oriented apartment projects yet, Denizen, has recently seen its first tenants take occupancy on a site that was the station's parking lot until 2014. The front door of the nearest residency is about 50 feet from the tracks.

The train continues under the 6th and 8th avenue overpasses en route to 10th and Osage, home to Denver Housing Authority's nationally lauded Mariposa project, a community designed with health, arts, and economic opportunity in mind. The Buckhorn Exchange, sporting Denver Liquor License No. 1, provides a historic counterpoint to the forward-thinking development that is growing the housing stock here from about 300 units to 900.

I get my first and last RTD security fare check of the day before transferring to the W Line at the Auraria West Station. 

This is actually the first time I've taken this train west to Golden, so it's a new view of a familiar place as the train speeds over a sea of industry, past Sports Authority Field at Mile High and into Lakewood Gulch en route to the Sheridan Station.

Lakewood Gulch from Sheridan Boulevard.I get out for the 15 minutes between westbound trains because it's one of the stations Mile High Connects, a local transit advocacy nonprofit, highlighted as the least walkable and in serious need of first and last mile connections, or FLMC, in a recent report.

It's true. After climbing three flights of stairs to get to Sheridan Boulevard's bridge over the gulch, the only things I can see at street level are the RTD parking structure, an Aaron's Rent to Own and a Sinclair gas station a block away. 

Mile High Connects is pushing for more funding for sidewalks and other amenities that connect locals with stops like this one, noting that only 49 percent of low-income areas have sidewalks on one or both sides of the street -- versus 89 percent in high-income areas -- and places where more than 25 percent of the population is below the federal poverty level have 400 percent more pedestrian fatalities.

I head back down the stairs to the station itself. There's an opportunity for development on the vacant land around the tracks, but the bridge presents something of a barrier.

Not that planners haven't engaged in some cool placemaking here: I admire the Lakewood-Denver borders clearly marked on the concrete and Gift of Rain, an installation of colorful cables by John Fleming, before catching the next train. 

Next is Lamar Station -- a mere two blocks to the one and only Casa Bonita -- and into increasingly suburban surroundings before bearing south to the Denver Federal Center, one of the largest federal installations this side of Washington, D.C.

The foothills rise to prominence as the train approaches the end of the line at the Jefferson County Government Center. I see a golf course, backyards, warehouses, NREL, a teardrop trailer and a cemetery before the train comes to a stop.

Buses continue to downtown Golden from here, but this is just the first of six ends of the line for me today, so I hustle on to the next train back to Union Station. 

Signs on the train advertising the impending arrivals of the four new rail lines to Wheat Ridge, Westminster, Lone Tree and Denver International Airport, and the Flatiron Flyer bus rapid transit (BRT), all due by the end of 2016 as part of the $4.7 billion FasTracks. Approved by voters in 2004, it's the largest transit expansion in the U.S.: The 48 miles in the system today will jump to 170 by the end of next year.

The train retraces its route through Lakewood Gulch into the city center and I start covering new ground with stops for Sports Authority at Mile High, the Pepsi Center and Elitch Gardens before rolling into LoDo and Union Station

Apartments rise around Union Station in LoDo.There are cranes in all directions, new buildings and others under construction, and I think back to catching the last train from LoDo a decade ago when it was a big patch of nothing behind Union Station. 

I stroll two blocks over to the once-forgotten depot that's once again the center of the city. It's been a year since the completion of the dazzling $500 million redevelopment project that remade the place into a transit hub and added a hotel, restaurants and shops, and catalyzed a wave of additional investment into downtown Denver.

It's busy inside, and I grab a cup of Pigtrain Coffee and find a good place to sit in the cavernous Great Hall, amidst business meetings, tourists gawking and taking pictures and people waiting for the California Zephyr train that runs from Chicago to San Francisco, stopping in Denver twice a day.

The sets fill as lunch hour nears. A group of kids comes through on a tour. "Does anybody know why people moved to Colorado?" the teacher asks. A hand goes up. "Gold?"

After a bowl of green chile below the vintage neon sign at the bar at The Kitchen Next Door, it's half past noon and I need to get going -- there's still a lot of track to cover before the day is done.

In the middle of this now-posh zip code, a coal train is parked on the tracks as I wait for the next train south. I backtrack to 10th and Osage and catch the H train to 18th and California just before 1 p.m. Passengers make a mass exodus at the Colfax at Auraria stop, before the train snakes past the Colorado Convention Center and its big blue bear and into the heart of the Central Business District.

Surrounded by skyscrapers, I've got 10 minutes before the next D to 30th and Downing, across the street from seven taxis waiting for their next fare. My wait proves to be shorter.

The train banks up Welton Street through the heart of the Five Points Historic Cultural District, in many ways still waiting for that catalytic kick light rail promised when it first rolled through in 1995. But a new plan in place to develop the corridor is starting to show fruit in the form of new apartment projects, and the landmark Rossonian Hotel looks like it will reopen after a long closure. 

There's not a whole lot of commercial activity at this end of the line at 30th and Downing -- Gem Food Mart and a for-sale restaurant aren't quite Union Station -- but the surrounding historic neighborhood has density and plenty of charms.

Heading south

Just after 1:30 p.m. and I'm heading back south on the D Line. I encounter a diverse crowd as I re-enter and re-exit downtown and get off the train at 10th and Osage. I've got six minutes to kill -- not enough time for a beer at the Buckhorn Exchange -- so I just wait at the station for the next southbound H. The train follows I-25 and curves through concrete canyons to I-225 to the Nine Mile Station at Parker Road. 

The end of the H Line: Nine Mile.This is another station Mile High Connects has identified as deficient in terms of FLMC. I go down a couple tobacco-tinged flights of stairs before arriving at ground level. There's a bike trail and another impressive RTD parking garage, but there's also a maze of ramps and vehicles hurtling by on Parker Road, a full nine lanes wide at this point, as the city's legacy car culture clashes with transit access.

Back on the H Line to Southmoor, I take the E Line south to the day's fifth end of the line at Lincoln. The ride takes me past the rising TOD project at Belleview Station, past Sheplers Western Wear, past IKEA and past Park Meadows Mall to where the suburbs dissipate into exurbs. There are offices and and a garage at the end of the line here, but there's also plenty of open acreage in the vicinity, with round bales of hay dotting many of the parcels.

You either want to plunk a stop in the middle of a neighborhood, or else let the neighborhood come to you. If only it were that simple. As the number of TOD projects rises with next year's massive expansion, there's a lot of competing nodes on the system -- can they all succeed?

The train is fairly empty on the return trip north, as traffic on I-25 thickens. The light rail cars going the other way are nearly full. 

The end of my day on the train is in sight. I get back to I-25 and Broadway and miss a southbound D towards my sixth and last end of the line at Mineral. 

It gives me 10 minutes to wax philosophical in the shadows of the I-25 overpass. This station was the end of the line when the light rail started running in 1995 and it's yet to see much change in the immediate vicinity. Sure, there was the demolition of the Gates facilities to the south, but the land remains undeveloped under new owner Frontier Renewal. To the east there are parking lots and more parking lots. To the north is the Denver Design District. To the west is a storage yard full of construction signs and construction equipment. 

To the crafty developer, of course, each and every one of these is a big opportunity, not unlike D4 Urban's plans to pair Denizen with another apartment project on RTD's old bus barn property and connect it to Alameda Station with a pedestrian bridge. Just like Union Station a decade ago, this place's time is coming.

I catch the D train at 4 p.m. and see the familiar surroundings of my neighborhood before again speeding into the south suburbs of Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton. In downtown Littleton, the stop is a peaceful plaza with a mural of how things used to be. The train runs past the shiny new Breckenridge Brewery before the final stop at Mineral Station, within walking distance of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the Aspen Grove shopping center and a mile by bike trail to the brewery.

About 20 people, mostly retirees, wait for the train north to the city here. I've got 2 percent of my phone battery left and four stops to complete the circuit. The train arrives at 4:20 p.m. and I'm soon staring at a battery of Red Bull ads inside one of the cars. Sickly sweet energy drink? I'm more in the mood for a beer at Declaration Brewing, conveniently located a block and a half from my final stop at Evans. 

Transit-oriented brewing? Now there's a trend I can get behind.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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