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Newcomers bring transit ideas to Denver


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chris: I'm going to expand your post and move it over to the transit section. It should get more attention there. I think the things going on in Denver now in regards to transit are terrific



Carmel Zucker for The New York Times This lightjet train at Union Station in downtown Denver will soon have plenty of company as the station becomes the hub of an extended rail transit system.


Newcomers Reinvent Denver With an Unlikely Idea: Trains

By KIRK JOHNSON | November 11, 2004

LAKEWOOD, Colo., Nov. 10 - Mass transit systems get tougher to build as cities age and grow, planners say. But as the Denver metropolitan area begins work on one of the most ambitious urban transportation projects in the nation's history - 120 miles on six new rail lines to be built all at once over the next 12 years - that logic has been turned on its head.

Politicians and planners say that for reasons of economics and car culture, Denver could never have embarked on such an adventure in urban thinking at any imaginable time in the past.

In the late 1990's, 644,000 people moved to Colorado from other states for jobs and a better way of life. The influx, mostly in the Denver area, created big problems. Traffic snarls multiplied, and sprawl extended out in every direction.

But to a great extent, politicians say, it also led to a reinvention of what Denver could be, because the newcomers who created the need for better transit also had a solution. They liked trains.

A survey commissioned by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation this year found that support for mass transit was in direct correlation to how long people had lived in the state.

Among those here 15 years or less, two out of three liked the idea, compared with about half of the people who had been here 30 years or more. The $4.7 billion transit project, called FasTracks and financed by an increase in the local sales tax, was approved by 58 percent of the region's voters on Nov. 2.

"The in-migration has brought many folks who aren't saddled with conventional thinking - that this is how we do it in the West, we all have our horses or our cars or whatever and we ride them to work," said Byron R. Koste, who has lived in the state eight years and is director of the Real Estate Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Diron Baker is another newcomer who will leave his mark on Denver transit. He came here in 2001 to attend college from Washington, D.C., where he rode the trains. He was shocked that he could not do it here.

Mr. Baker now drives just about everywhere - from his home in Lakewood, a suburb west of Denver, to school and to his job at a Denver hotel - and does not much like it. He voted for FasTracks even though he said he would probably move away eventually, to continue his studies in Portland, Ore.

"I still voted for it because I think they really need it," he said.

The transit package had other features that made it palatable now to voters and business leaders. The Denver of years past would not have had the derelict industrial sites on the city's fringe where some of the new train stations will be built. And when Denver was still a cow town of bawling freight yards, many of the old rail beds that the transit system will rely on were still in use.

In other ways, though, the Denver system is a throwback to the early days of urban rail in the late 19th century, when trolley systems snaked out of cities like Denver and Boston, creating what were called streetcar suburbs. Some of Denver's new lines are meant to function precisely in that way.

As the rail corridors head toward Longmont, 38 miles north, for example, and to Denver International Airport, 24 miles to the northeast, they will go through land that is still mostly empty. Planners expect the future growth pattern of the region - for the 900,000 new residents expected over the next 20 years - to be tied together by those lines in the same way that the Main Line of Philadelphia shaped its suburban enclaves like Bryn Mawr and Ardmore.

The Denver system will have some lines of commuter rail, in which the trains run on diesel fuel, and some - on separate tracks - of light rail, which use electricity for power.

"In the early part of the 20th century, when subways and trolley lines were built, often it led to the development of new parts of the city," said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group that represents transit agencies and companies. "Then we got away from that - highway building in the 50's dispersed development; now in the last 15 years, communities are struggling to find their way back."

What distinguishes Denver, Mr. Millar said, is that it will grow up all at once with a comprehensive vision of how the parts fit together. And it is pure transit, not the mixture of highway expansion and rail that many other cities are building.

"Outside of New York City, which is in a league by itself, this is the largest comprehensive program of expanding public transportation in the country," Mr. Millar said.

In Lakewood, planners are only partly thinking about how people will move around. The equally big benefit and risk, they say, will come from the stations. A rezoning plan will be worked out in the next year to encourage what are essentially islands of high-density apartment living around at least two of the big stations, with lots of open space and pedestrian promenades integrated into the design. The goal is to create stations that are also destinations.

Focusing development on the stations, said the city's director of community planning and development, Frank Gray, will also protect the more suburban areas along the line where residents have said they do not want things to change. Most of the Western Line, which will run through Lakewood and end in Golden, is to be built with a deep historic echo, Mr. Gray said. There was a trolley line on that same railbed there in the 1890's, which was later replaced by a freight line before its abandonment in the 1960's.

Denver's mayor, John W. Hickenlooper, said that the approval of FasTracks was a mark of recognition that Denver's future was to be shared among all the counties and communities of the region. And the very process of building it, he said, will strengthen and hone that realization. But it is also a nod, he said, to the idea that Denver's future, in a way that might make older Coloradans quail, is undeniably, permanently urban - more akin to the big cities of the East and West Coasts than the prairie metropolis of old.

"It will attract urban people who love trains," he said.

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