“Our community is failing,” at-large Denver City Councilmember Robin Kniech told Denverite on a Denver Streets Partnership-organized walk Wednesday night meant to memorialize those recently killed in traffic deaths.
“We’re failing those who’ve died. We’re failing those who’ve been injured, and we’re failing those who don’t have the mobility options they need, whether it’s because they can’t afford them or they don’t feel safe to choose them. We are not yet living up to the vision we have as a city,” she said.
That’s despite the city increasing its spending on things like bike lanes and safer intersections, she noted. So while work in those areas is continuing, Kniech and street safety advocates are turning their attention to another space: pushing for redesigns of Denver busiest — and deadliest — roads to prioritize buses over cars. And the city is preparing to oblige.
Plans to redesign busy roads like Colfax and Federal for transit are coming into focus.
The vast majority of the Regional Transportation District’s decades-long, multi-billion dollar rail expansion program favored the suburbs and downtown Denver while avoiding the city’s neighborhoods.
So RTD and city planners have been dreaming up a complementary network of bus rapid transit corridors on busy arterial streets. Many of those roads — Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard, Colorado Boulevard, Broadway and others — also account for a disproportionate share of traffic fatalities. In other words, they can be very dangerous.
“It’s tempting to blame the drivers on these streets for the lack of care or concern for others,” Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, said at the Wednesday memorial. “But those drivers are just people too. They’re like you and me. They’re simply using the streets the way they were designed — as highways.”
Locantore sees the development of a bus rapid transit network as key to improving safety on those dangerous roads, because many will be redesigned to shift general purpose car lanes to bus-only lanes. She hopes that, and other safety improvements, will result in fewer drivers driving slower than they do now.
“When we free up street space from cars, we can add better sidewalks and bike lanes and safer crossings and trees that provide beauty,” she said.
Her group is pushing city leaders and other relevant government agencies to speed up the implementation of the bus rapid transit network. And after years of early planning and discussions, there’s finally movement afoot.
Denver officials are preparing to release an update to the long-term transit plan that shows how the city hopes to implement roughly $4 billion worth of improvements over 25 corridors through 2050. (Check out this slide presentation for a sneak peek of the update.)
“[On] some of those corridors it’s simpler treatments — it’s paint and posts and some traffic signal improvements,” said David Krutsinger, transit director for the city and county of Denver. “[On] other corridors, it’s the full-blown bus rapid transit treatment.”
The city and the Regional Transportation District have long planned for full-blown bus rapid transit on East Colfax, with speed-boosting amenities like bus-only lanes and off-vehicle payment. Last year, the city estimated that the project would open in 2028. But Krutsinger said the city is now looking to speed that up by a year or two.
Beyond East Colfax, Krutsinger said the city also expects it will be able to open bus rapid transit lines on Federal Boulevard and perhaps Speer/Leetsdale or Colorado Boulevard by 2030.
“Those are a little bit cloudier in our crystal ball, but certainly a third corridor is possible by the end of the decade if everybody’s working together to achieve it,” Krustinsger said, adding that the city hopes to build out three bus rapid transit corridors a decade through the 2040s.
The projects also hinge on funding. Krutsinger said the city sees opportunities from the new federal infrastructure bill, and a new climate-conscious transportation planning process at the Colorado Department of Transportation and regional planning agencies that could shovel more money toward transit.
And unlike RTD’s whole-system-building 2004 FasTracks vote, Krutsinger said the city will also likely go to voters to approve incremental bond measures. Those will raise money, and also measure public support for what could be disruptive projects.
“It’s important that we get community input to make sure our priorities are correct, and that the community is behind the funding choices,” he said.
Denver can reshape its streets for buses. But can RTD hold up its end of the bargain?
A new bus rapid transit system can only be successful if buses show up frequently and reliably. RTD is currently trying to chip away at a stubborn driver shortage and budgetary problems that are limiting its ability to restore transit service to pre-pandemic levels, let alone expand it.
“We’re in a situation where we cut a lot of service,” Bill Sirois, RTD’s senior manager of transit-oriented communities, told attendees of the Wednesday night traffic death memorial. “There’s a lot of expectations out there for more transit. But we’re trying to, at this point, basically to kind of level-set everybody and make sure that we can create that reliable service.”
Key to that effort is the “Reimagine RTD” process, which is meant to put RTD on a fiscally sustainable path after its expansion-focused and financially unsustainable 2010s. RTD staff have already used that process to push for a dramatic overhaul of its existing bus system, refocusing service away from the suburbs and toward Denver. The RTD board will vote on that later this year.
Up next, Sirois said, RTD will also produce financial analysis to see what kind of funding would be necessary to expand service to the levels that advocates like Locantore want to see.
“We need more funding for transportation,” Sirois said, adding: “It’s going to be a challenge.”