took a deep dive into the expansion of Denver's rail network.
A decade ago, travelers arriving at Denver's sprawling new airport would look out over a vast expanse of flat, prairie dog-infested grassland and wonder if their plane had somehow fallen short of its destination. The $4.9 billion airport -- at 53 square miles, larger than Manhattan -- was derided as being "halfway to Kansas," and given the emptiness of the 23-mile drive to the city, it felt that way.
Last month, arriving visitors boarded the first trains headed for downtown, a journey that zips past a new Japanese-style "smart city" emerging from the prairie before depositing passengers 37 minutes later in a bustling urban hive of restaurants, shops and residential towers that only six years ago was a gravelly no man's land -- an entire $2 billion downtown neighborhood that's mushroomed up around the hub of Denver's rapidly expanding light rail system.
The 22.8-mile spur from the airport to downtown is the latest addition to a regional rail system that has transformed Denver and its suburbs. Using an unprecedented public-private partnership that combines private funding, local tax dollars and federal grants, Denver has done something no other major metro area has accomplished in the past decade, though a number of cities have tried. At a moment when aging mass transit systems in several major cities are capturing headlines for mismanagement, chronic delays and even deaths, Denver is unveiling a shiny new and widely praised network: 68 stations along 10 different spurs, covering 98 miles, with another 15 miles still to come. Even before the new lines opened, 77,000 people were riding light rail each day, making it the eighth-largest system in the country even though Denver is not in the top 20 cities for population. The effects on the region's quality of life have been measurable and also surprising, even to the project's most committed advocates. Originally intended to unclog congested highways and defeat a stubborn brown smog that was as unhealthy as it was ugly, the new rail system has proven that its greatest value is the remarkable changes in land use its stations have prompted, from revitalizing moribund neighborhoods, like the area around Union Station, to creating new communities where once there was only sprawl or buffalo grass.
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