If the voters who passed RTD’s lightrail expansion FasTracks in 2004 had their way, the L Line would no longer end at 30th Avenue and Downing Street.
By 2017 riders would have been able to take the train all the way to the A Line at the 38th and Blake streets stop and have easy access to both Denver International Airport and Union Station. And Five Points would have been a better-connected neighborhood, from the Welton Street Corridor to Brighton Boulevard.
Things haven’t worked out that way — yet. Seventeen years later, the L Line still fizzles out at 30th and Downing.
Vacant, unleased and for-sale commercial buildings — including a shuttered Burger King and the building that once housed the Wrangler — line the stretch of Downing where the L Line should be running. Brighton and Welton remain poorly connected by transit and challenging to travel between.
What went wrong?
While RTD managed to build 25.1 miles of light rail and 53 miles of commuter rail track, the .8 mile stretch connecting the L Line to the A Line proved not to be a priority.
“In 2007, 2008, 2009, when we were going through the recession, we had to reconfigure our planning for FasTracks and determine what we could continue to move forward with based on the funding we had and how far along the projects were in their planning and engineering processes and what we were going to have to push out farther,” said Pauletta Tonilas, a spokesperson for RTD. “The Central Corridor Extension is one of the projects that had to get pushed out until we identified funding.”
Yet for years, the project was piddling forward.
RTD conducted an environmental evaluation that wrapped in 2010. In 2013 and 2014, there were more studies on how the project would work, and by 2015, basic engineering was finished.
Then things stalled.
In 2019, RTD estimated it would need to raise $140 million in capital costs for the extension. Since the pandemic, inflation and rising construction costs has likely driven that number higher, but the project has been kicked down the road so far that there isn’t a current estimate.
“The issue is we don’t have funding secured to complete that extension,” said Tonilas. “And so that is one of the few remaining FasTracks projects that we currently don’t have funding to complete.”
The others include a B Line extension to Longmont, the Southwest Rail Line Extension which would take the C and D Line service south into Highlands Ranch, and an extension of the N Line to Thornton.
Not only is there no money, but “we don’t have any of them prioritized,” said Tonilas.
The RiNo Art District wants the Central Rail Line Extension to be prioritized.
Two weeks ago (and four years after the L Line extension should have been wrapped), the nonprofit RiNo Art District launched a Change.org petition to pressure the city and RTD to connect the two lines.
“We believe the L-Line to be a vital link between Five Points and Downtown and extending it to 38th and Blake Station will offer significant benefits to community mobility, whilst also creating enhanced transit options for A-Line passengers wishing to access central downtown,” the RiNo Art District noted. “We call upon RTD and the City and County of Denver to work in partnership to develop an implementation plan to enable transit operations to commence within the next five-year period.”
Nearly 400 people have signed the petition.
RTD itself is eager to wrap FasTracks, since the ongoing delay continues to stain its reputation.
“No one would like to complete the remaining Fast Tracks projects more than RTD, but it really is all about funding,” said Tonilas. “And given that we’re in a position of trying to recover from the pandemic, obviously, we are looking at how we restore service for our existing system right now and yet still looking for opportunities on the horizon where we can solidify funding to complete these remaining projects.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Pauletta Tonilas. We regret the error.