Sam Chesser thought trains would transform Denver.
As a teenager in Aurora in the early 2000s, his travels to huge cities like Moscow and New York City showed him the power of an effective, affordable public transportation network. Walking down the steps into a New York City subway station for the first time was like seeing the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, he said.
“It was just so different than anything I’d ever done before,” he said of his first subway ride. “Having seen all the traffic and taxis and cars and stuff, and then all of a sudden you go underground for 20 minutes and then you come up somewhere else. And you’re just in a different world.”
So Chesser was excited to vote for the Regional Transportation District’s 2004 FasTracks expansion plan to build more than 100 miles of passenger rail that would connect the suburbs to downtown Denver. He convinced his family and friends to cast their ballots for it too because he thought RTD’s trains would give him and his friends the same experience he had in New York — an easy, cheap way to see more of the city.
“Instead of hanging around Old Chicago in Aurora, we could hop on the train and just head into downtown and not have to pay $20 to park,” he said. “It was all really exciting.”
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Eighteen years later, RTD has built out about three-quarters of that rail system and fully renovated Union Station. Chesser is now in his 30s, with a wife, a dog and a mid-century bungalow in Chaffee Park.
And, he’s sad to say, he almost never uses the trains.
He cites a host of reasons — they’re expensive, they’re typically slower than driving. But one stands above the rest: They don’t go where he needs to go. Even though FasTracks was primarily designed to carry commuters from the suburbs to downtown and more than two dozen stations are in Denver proper, they’re often in hard-to-reach places. The nearest station to Chesser’s house, for example, is more than two miles away, tucked into the armpit of interstates 76 and 25.
Chesser is disillusioned by how his teenage dreams turned out.
“It’s super disappointing,” he said. “It’s hard not to be jaded by it and look at what could be in any city and know that we don’t have anything close to it.”
He admits that those dreams were naïve. But now grizzled and wiser, Chesser has a clearer idea of what he does want.
“Having lived in northwest Denver now for eight or nine years and knowing what the Denver Tramway once was, I think that’s what I wanted,” Chesser said of the historic network of streetcars that much of Denver and surrounding towns were built around.
The streetcars spawned dense, walkable neighborhoods. Houses and apartments were built on rectangle blocks with wide sidewalks, and commercial strips were sprinkled along the lines — that’s how South Pearl Street in Platt Park or Tennyson Street in Berkeley came about. With only a few exceptions, RTD’s rail lines avoid those old streetcar corridors completely.
So why didn’t RTD put rail lines through the city?
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, RTD was trying to build its first-ever light rail line. It would have connected downtown Denver to the old Stapleton Airport, running through the heart of Denver’s historic Black neighborhoods of Five Points and Park Hill via Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
RTD planners tried selling the line to residents as a way to quickly get downtown, where lots of jobs were. The planners saw it as a transportation project that could help a minority community, after so many highway construction projects in the 1950s and 1960s hurt them.
“I think we were at a place in time where RTD and planners realized things were changing and that community-driven projects were more important than just moving cars,” said Debra Baskett, a former RTD planner who worked on the project.
But what Baskett and other RTD planners found in Park Hill was a community not very excited at the thought of light rail trains rolling down the middle of a boulevard named after a Civil Rights icon.
“The symbolism of what Martin Luther King represents across this nation and this world is tremendous,” Bishop Acen Phillips, who has ministered in Denver for more than 50 years, told Denverite. “If you can desecrate it and just make it a regular street with rail running up and down it, then you nullify its value.”
Phillips and other Black pastors organized Park Hill residents against the line. It was a personal crusade for Phillips. Raised in Mississippi, he arrived in Denver in the mid-1950s with no money in his pockets. But he did have a car: a 1953 Plymouth. He slept in it before he got on his feet and met his wife.
“It’s your car,” he said. “I don’t care how raggedy it is, how many dents are in it, you washed every dang part of it because it belonged to you.”
To Phillips, cars meant freedom from the racist streetcars he had to use in Kansas City, where he went to junior college.
“Whether it was a bus or a streetcar, if you’re Black, you’ve got to get back,” he said, referring to the then-common practice of forced segregation on transit. “And so when RTD comes out [with its rail proposal], it’s not something we were necessarily looking forward to and going to jump on.”
Phillips organized the neighborhoods against the line. Flyers from the time said it would reduce property values, cost parking spaces, and otherwise hurt the pleasant feel of neighborhoods that Black families had worked for years to create and maintain. One flyer depicted a square peg and a round hole. “If it don’t fit — DON’T FORCE IT,” it said.
By the early 1990s, Baskett and RTD did what the highway builders of decades before didn’t: They acquiesced to a Black neighborhood’s demands. The train line would instead end in Five Points at 30th and Downing, where it ends today.
“I think RTD made the right decision to back off from that,” Baskett said. “It would have been wrong to force that.”
So why didn’t RTD build any intracity lines after that?
Building rail lines where RTD did – down old freight rail corridors and next to highways – was already expensive. But to put one down a busy street would be both costly and more disruptive.
“The way that we looked at things was whether we could get property without fighting with people,” said Robert Rynerson, a retired service and rail planner who worked at RTD from the 1980s until the 2010s. “If you build a light rail line in the classic way, like a lot of European cities have on their original lines, you have to deal with maybe hundreds of individual property owners who all want to have a fight about it.”
RTD also avoided corridors that would have forced cities or the state Department of Transportation (then the Department of Highways) to give up lanes of traffic or parking for exclusive transit use. (The canceled MLK line and the lines through downtown and Five Points were exceptions to this, Rynerson said.)
That’s one reason, Rynerson said, why RTD put its W Line that stretches from Union Station to Golden down an old railroad bed in Lakewood Gulch and, further west, directly adjacent to U.S. Highway 6, and not on West Colfax Avenue — an old, densely packed streetcar street.
“Then, all the light rail would have been seen as … is a loss in parking spaces,” Rynerson said.
So now, the W Line is near but not on Colfax for much of its length. RTD has tried multiple times to encourage people to ride the W Line by killing off the 16L express bus on Colfax itself. But passenger demand and an outcry from a transit justice group have saved it. At least so far — RTD recently proposed cutting it again.
RTD also briefly considered, around 2002, a light-rail line from Interstate 25 to Civic Center down Broadway, called the Central Connector. But it died after some business owners complained it would eat up parking spaces. A Denver Post editorial called it “hairbrained” and a “demonstrably bad idea,” and said train cars would get stuck in cross traffic. (Buses now have their own lane for much of this stretch.)
“It’s really frustrating,” said Mark Imhoff, another planner who worked at RTD in the 1980s and 1990s. “I can tell you as a retired guy now, 30 years ago I had hoped for a better system [in the city] to retire into.”
RTD’s massive district also explains why its rail lines favor the suburbs.
As RTD was drawing up its plans for an entire rail system — first Guide the Ride, which voters rejected in 1997, then the successful FasTracks vote in 2004 — it needed to pitch a system that was going to appeal to a majority of voters in its 2,342-square-mile district. Most of those voters live in Denver’s suburbs.
The district drew on decades of corridor studies and came up with a system of more than 100 miles of rapid transit that penetrated deep into the suburbs. And the vast majority of the proposed lines were rail, not buses, because RTD officials thought that most Denver-area residents perceived buses to be for “a lower economic strata,” said Marla Lien, RTD’s former general counsel.
“In Colorado, people didn’t use buses,” said Lien, a New York native who grew up riding buses. “It was seen as something for people that couldn’t afford cars, or couldn’t afford two cars.”
Today, sustainability advocates often call for more frequent and faster transit service through already dense corridors, with the aim of developing a system that would allow people to give up their cars completely. That was not the aim of FasTracks, Baskett said.
“I just don’t think that was the paradigm that people were thinking of at that time,” said Baskett, who had moved on from RTD by the time of the FasTracks vote but campaigned for it.
Rather, FasTracks was designed to give suburbanites another choice in how to travel to downtown or the airport.
“People have cars, and cars are wonderful,” RTD’s former CEO and general manager Cal Marsella, who ran RTD when FasTracks was passed, said in 2009. “They’re just not good for every trip. If we could get people to drive a mile or two to a park and ride, take the train in, leave their car at home, we solved a problem. … It’s a great model, and it works.”
Are RTD’s rail plans a great model, and do they work for commuters?
Since 1994, RTD has built and opened 10 passenger rail corridors covering more than 120 miles — a very large system for a metro area the size of Denver’s.
But it’s also an underperforming one. Even before the pandemic, most of the rail lines built as part of the 2004 FasTracks plan were nowhere close to their original ridership projections for 2025.
A few reasons help explain why. First, RTD had to make some sacrifices to get its rail lines built. It moved a station on the R Line, for example, from the heart of the Anschutz Medical Campus to its fringe because the University of Colorado was concerned train vibrations would damage medical equipment. Passengers must now walk a half-mile or take a shuttle to reach the campus.
Second, RTD had to cut corners. RTD only built one track on stretches of the W, N, and A lines, for example, to save money up front. But the lack of a second track and other changes mean some trains can’t run as often or as fast as originally intended, an RTD spokeswoman said in an email.
RTD factored in those changes and lowered ridership estimates as each line was designed and built. But in some cases they haven’t yet reached those predictions either. And then the pandemic hit, keeping many downtown commuters home – the very same commuters the trains were meant to serve.
RTD officials hope that will change when more people go back to work because the rail system’s ability to carry lots of people makes it the “high-capacity backbone” of the transit system, said Doug Monroe, RTD’s manager of corridor planning for operations.
Still, RTD’s success at selling its constituents on the superiority of rail has turned into a liability.
The agency “got caught up in that kind of vision that was really … not sustainable,” said Bill Sirois, RTD’s senior manager of transit-oriented communities. Because while rail worked well in some corridors, trying to build it across the entire district has proved to be wildly expensive and has cost RTD its credibility in areas where it hasn’t been able to build, like Boulder and Longmont.
“The world has changed since 2004. And we’re trying to deal with that changed world with the expectations of 2004,” Sirois said. “It’s a conflict for us. And as a staff, we’re trying to deal with that. Because I do think that if we were to do the same thing we did in 2004 today, it would be a much different look.”
FasTracks passed during the “golden age of rail,” Sirois said, when there was more federal money for train projects. That’s much tighter now, he said, and construction costs are much higher now too.
Powerful state leaders – including the governor – still want RTD to deliver the remaining pieces of FasTracks, which would cost at least $2 billion.
“I don’t think anybody would make this deal today. But it doesn’t matter,” Gov. Jared Polis told the RTD board last year. “The voters have been paying taxes for this project since 2005. And so it’s just a question of how it can be expeditiously delivered.”
Polis and state lawmakers passed a bill last year that will raise billions of dollars for transportation. RTD is eligible to apply for state money from the new law, but there’s no guaranteed money for the transit agency.
What does the future of transit in Denver look like now?
It’s not trains (except perhaps the L Line extension up Downing Street), but it is buses that emulate trains as much as possible. Specifically, buses that come more frequently and move through crowded streets faster than they do now.
RTD has identified nearly 10 corridors across the city and some suburbs that would be ideal for “bus rapid transit,” which offers some of the benefits of rail without the high price tag and disruptive construction process.
Crucially, the buses would have their own lanes of traffic to move through. That would mean less space for cars — which is kind of the point, said Shontel Lewis, an RTD board member from northeast Denver.
“If we really want to see a better city, a better world, one that really prioritizes climate change, really prioritizes the impacts on our city, then we have to change,” she said. “This is the time for us to start making investments in our infrastructure differently than we have in the past.”
RTD is looking at bus rapid transit lines on streets like Park Avenue/38th Avenue, Speer Boulevard/Leetsdale Drive/Parker Road, Broadway/Lincoln Street, Colorado Boulevard, Alameda Avenue, Havana Street/Hampden Avenue, and Federal Boulevard. Separately, RTD and the city and county of Denver are pursuing a line on East Colfax.
But while a handful of policy makers, like Lewis, and advocacy groups are pushing these bus rapid transit projects, there appears to be little urgency in the halls of power. The Colfax line is the furthest along, and that won’t come until 2028 at the earliest.
Any big changes to these streets need sign-off and planning from lots of parties, including RTD, local governments, and the state Department of Transportation. An agreement signed by CDOT and the City and County of Denver last spring on the Colfax project shows they’re trying to make the transformation to bus rapid transit as painless for drivers as possible.
“Denver recognizes that while transforming the densest portions of Colfax to prioritize transit, vehicular access must be maintained and adequately and safely accommodated,” the agreement states.
And there’s another roadblock to better buses: money.
RTD will be paying down its FasTracks debt for decades to come — and is even planning to cut into its bus system to help cover its debts in the next five years. It can only afford to restore transit service to about 85 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, and that will only be possible if it can hire more mechanics and drivers.
More immediately, RTD is considering a significant overhaul of its bus network that would cut little-used lines in the suburbs in favor of more service where more people have still been riding through the pandemic. Many of those places are in the city.
“The FasTracks program has been about what was promised and what people want,” Lewis said. “But this is about what people actually need. We’re prioritizing those that are marginalized, those that are vulnerable. We’re prioritizing equity — and not in words, but in action.”