Alternative Transportation modes – The Light Rail and Urban Commuter Rail Systems.

The Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD – affectionately known as The Ride), currently runs 124 local, 16 express, 16 regional, 16 limited, 8 SkyRide, and several special services bus lines, but also 8 light rail lines and an additional 3 commuter rail lines with 71 stations and 88 miles of track.  It first opened October 7, 1994.  There are 3 commuter rail lines reaching out from Union Station to DIA, Westminster, and Wheat Ridge (AB & D lines), with 8 Light rail lines (CDEFHLR & W lines) radiating from central Denver out to the suburbs.  If you visit most large U.S. cities you will probably find a similar situation – Light/commuter rail running through the Greater city.  Often the new light rail is merely establishing along the old tram systems that once were the norm in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.  (Recall from an earlier post that Ford and Rockefeller were pivotal in removing the mass transit systems in the U.S. to make way for cars and trucks.)   

One of the problems for the Front Range is that while Denver mass transit is growing, the rest of the towns from Cheyenne to Trinidad have sparse transit options – bus or train.  Future projections of the RTD commuter rail show it eventually running from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, but the projections are more like decades in the future not mere years.  Many towns in the Front Range daily see the Heavy Train with industrial rail cars running north and south from beyond Cheyenne to beyond Raton in New Mexico.  What should be remembered is that this rail-line also used to be part of the passenger rail system as well.  When you drive I-70 from Cheyenne to Fort Collins you will notice that the heavy rail runs close to the freeway much of the way.  Now the controllers of the heavy rail system do not particularly like having to use freight trains through all of the small towns between Fort Collins and Pueblo, but that is the rail line they have – on Mason Street in Fort Collins the rail lines are literally in the middle of the street.  It takes a lot of energy to move a heavy rail train and it is inefficient and a nuisance to have to slow down or stop such a heavy vehicle. They would love to have a rail that runs east of the city, say following I-470 where many easements are already established.  But that line would need to be built.  The key here is cost. As an example, to build the light rail line up to Fort Collins would be $10-20 mile with much eminent domain (compulsory purchase) acquisition of private land to create the light rail route.  To build a heavy rail line as just described above would be more like $1-5 million per mile.  If this were the new Heavy rail line, then the current heavy rail line would be freed up at no extra cost and the commuter rail could begin immediately once the heavy rail line switched tracks it was using.  All that would be needed would be passenger parking and Stations – think of the old Loveland Depot on Railroad Avenue and 4th Street to understand where and how the commuter rail would run.  And with only 5 passenger cars instead of the 120 freight ones, the wait at rail crossing would be minimized.

Pros and Cons of mass transit commuter and light rail

Pros – Trains are more energy efficient than road vehicles, produce much less air pollution that cars, require less land than roads and parking areas required for automotive traffic and substantially reduce traffic congestion, especially at peak rush times.  Trains are a relatively safe form of transportation, causing almost no injuries and deaths compared to auto traffic.  The cost of running trains is about 90% of that to run a bus system.  Studies have also found that Transit systems, such as light rail, induce investment and development in an area in which they run, because industry sectors have a greater incentive to locate near transit corridors.  Property values have also been found to increase near transit corridors.  For example, the knowledge and computer based industries in Silicon valley located there in part because of the proximity of mass transit systems. 

Cons – Rail systems can be expensive to build and are only really cost effective along high population corridors – the front range fits this requirement, although parts of other cities need to be assessed whether rail or bus is the most viable option.  Most transit systems need city, state, or federal subsidies of some kind and ridership can vary depending on the price of gasoline.  Light rail is more prone to this problem than commuter rail.  Riders are committed to transportation schedules even if the cost is cheaper.  Although not a major problem, rail lines can cause noise and vibration for people living along rail corridors.  Areas where light/commuter rail systems are being constructed for some reason suffer endemic delays and cost overruns.  If there is a problem on a rail line the track is blocked because you cannot reroute a train like you can a bus.           

Whenever I travel east down I-70 from the mountains I am always amazed at the massive amounts of traffic and how much of it is front range traffic returning from playing in the mountains.  The adding of a very expensive ($70 million) 12 miles of express flow lane has helped a little, but anyone who still travels that route at any time of year still experiences the log-jam of traffic that are still a part of the I-70 mountain rush period experience.  For many years the idea of a Monorail from Denver to Summit County has been debated.  The monorail could travel at more than 100 mph, making stops at several stations between Denver and Eagle, with buses scheduled for the remaining short trips up side valleys to A-Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge and Minturn, and Mountain Stations at all the towns along the route between Denver and Eagle. (There would be the option of continuing it all the way to Glenwood Springs as well.)  No Traffic, fast access to the mountains, no parking problems, and the ability to relax and socialize while the trail does all the work of getting you to your destinations.  Designers say it could carry as many as 10,000 passengers an hour in each direction and cost about $25-30 million per mile to build (half the cost of two more I-70 lanes), meaning it would move nearly 8 times as many people as those extra lanes would do.  The biggest problem apparently is that it would only serve the needs of 90% of the people, something that some influential Colorado business and political leaders feel particularly strong about.