By: Niccolo Casewit, Eli Regalado, and Emily Haggstrom Issue: Rebuilding Our Infrastructure Section: Business
Breaking Barriers With Multi-modal Transportation Infrastructure
Infrastructure is more than airport runways, bridges, roads, and trains. It is ultimately about connecting people, information, goods and services. Our lifestyles have become more regional requiring greater mobility to get where we need to be. Colorado is transforming what it means to live, work, and play in a great environment.
And that environment is about to get substantially better as Denver’s transportation dreams are finally becoming a reality. Through collaboration, inspired innovation and a well-coordinated directive, public transportation is showing up as an increased investment for the diverse communities across Colorado’s front range. After more than a decade of planning, Denver’s metropolitan communities will finally see construction and expansion to their transportation infrastructure through its front range FasTracks development.
FasTracks: Connecting communities
The $6.7-billion FasTracks multi-corridor rail system, although conceived in the late 1970’s, was finally made possible three decades later after a group of elected officials reached out to communities in the suburbs through a regional campaign. Led by charismatic innovators like restaurant owner and former mayor turned Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, the initiative was spearheaded with a win-win approach to regional transportation.
The program aims to expand Denver’s current infrastructure by building roughly, “122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations, and enhanced bus service for easy, convenient bus/rail connections across an eight-county district,” says the Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) FasTracks website. The successful implementation of the program hinged on how unique communities found ways to link to each Other, providing visitors and residents public transportation to Denver’s central business district and cultural amenities.
With the expected completion of FasTracks in 2025, the development is poised to serve roughly 3.39 million people, helping to alleviate traffic congestion, connect communities, and enhance economic development in the neighborhoods it passes through.
Downtown Denver and its Growing Urban Sprawl: The need for transportation infrastructure
As Denver’s tourism and convention business continues to thrive and citizens across the downtown and metropolitan communities begin to experience what each neighborhood has to offer, it has become more important than ever to connect residents to the growing attractions in and around Denver. And access is everything as the city’s downtown hosts three major sports venues, a world-class performing arts center, a leading second-tier convention center, a funky mix of restaurants, retail, and entertainment along streets across Denver’s prime pedestrian sprawls.
With 300 days of sunshine, connecting modes of transportation between exciting, walkable, mixed-use districts is Denver’s way of creating innovation through transit-oriented design and city building. The FasTracks development has helped to attract companies like DaVita, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Gates Corporation, which were looking for a prime location and ease of mobility for their employees.
Union Station: The $500-million Hub for FasTracks
Denver’s beaux-art Union Station was built in 1881 to connect Denver with Cheyenne, Wyoming. Currently, the building is being repurposed as the new multi-modal transportation hub that will host a three-block underground regional bus transit station, new commuter rail platforms, and a public plaza serving a mixed use retail and office development in the newly constructed terminal.
RTD, the City of Denver and the Denver Union Station Project Authority (DUSPA) faced a $300-million budget gap for improvements and was forced to seek additional capital through cooperation with around 50 entities, which involved federal, state and local agencies to work with private partners to assure funding. In the end, Federal Railroad loans, an increase in property and local sales tax, as well as tax increment financing will be the key to the project’s successful completion. DUSPA, with their contractor Kiewit Western Company, report that the first phase of the underground bus transit project and the relocation of the existing light rail platform are nearly complete.
The commuter rail station itself, is set to be completed by fall 2016 with the unveiling of the east line to Denver International Airport. If the deadline for construction is met, Denver’s Union Station will serve as the designated terminal in FasTrack’s hub and spoke system.
The Eagle 3P Project: Public Private Partnership Success
The Eagle 3P project is a public-private partnership between RTD and Denver Transit Partners (DTP). By creating this partnership, RTD has been able to tap into the private sector’s up-front capital to build FasTracks, the largest commuter rail system expansion in the United States.
Through its partnership with the private sector, RTD is able to obtain global expertise and financing that will bolster a sustainable financial armature for the rail system in decades to come. For example, the team was able to forgo a 34-year term, instead securing a shorter 20-year term typically used by public bonding agencies. Through its securitized bond, global bonding agencies responded with lower financing costs, which in turn increased profits and also helped to off-set higher one-time costs associated with all-electric rail lines.
The Eagle 3P partnership arrangement passes the benefits of long-term capitalization, value engineering, and operational cost savings back to the transit district. By augmenting RTD’s FasTracks funds with private equity and private activity bonds, along with Federal loans and grants, the prudent long-range financing terms are paying off. Integrated design-build and clever operations planning have helped RTD achieve a $750-million savings over the total cost of the multi-corridor commuter rail projects.
By using a globally inspired financial payment model called the availability method, RTD is able to pay the capital costs over time with fare box collections, grants, and transit sales-tax subsidies. This enables RTD to concentrate district efforts on organizational-wide integration and finding ways to improve system services.
Work Force and Economic Development
According to Kevin Flynn, RTD’s Public Information Officer for the Eagle 3P Projects, over the five-year multi-corridor rail build-out, RTD estimates that the project will stimulate 10,000 new jobs in construction including their suppliers and other related services.
Through its commitment towards long-term work force development and training, RTD was the recipient of a $486,465 grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). RTD in collaboration with the Community College of Denver, the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and Denver Transit Partners (DTP) secured the grant for the Workforce Initiative Now (WIN) program that will assist in providing work-force training for the construction of the new heavy-rail commuter rail lines.
“In the long term, finished transit projects will increase employment by increasing the reach for the employees to possible jobs, and the employers, thus increasing the desirability of transit-rich Metropolitan Denver to companies wishing to relocate here. Bottom line: The reliability of commuter trains and fixed guide-ways, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), will make Denver one of the most attractive places to do business.”
With a young and well-educated population of over 2.8 million people, the Denver metro area has become a regional-hub for research and technology. Colorado’s regional high-tech beltway runs 30 miles between Denver and the City of Boulder, housing a number of national research institutions like the University of Colorado, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Research and Energy Laboratory (NREL) which will benefit from the ease of transportation the rail lines will bring.
More importantly, the American Public Transit Association (APTA) reports quarterly on transit issues and compiles data on the savings that an average commuter can expect. Denver’s costs vary, but it ranks 13th in transit savings of $857 or $10,287 annually by citizens who do not own or operate a car. As a benefit of living and working in transit-rich neighborhoods, transit-oriented communities actually induce additional economic development - supporting local shops, restaurants and services around each transit node. Real estate values in transit-rich neighborhoods are also seeing gains for this very reason.
Note: Since this story was written, RTD received a full Financial Funding Grant Agreement with the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) for a total of $1.03 billion to cover two separate rail line projects. While the construction of the East Rail Line is now fully funded, it was not dependent on finalizing the grant. This represents a huge boost for the 122-mile build-out of the entire FasTracks rail system.
Niccolo Casewit AIA, is an architect and urban planner. As a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) activist, a member of the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) Livable Communities sub-committee; and the AIA Denver Urban Design Committee he is well known as a community advocate for multi-modal infrastructure in the Denver region. Casewit is currently working on several architectural planning projects in several of the transit-rich neighborhoods of Denver.