Riding Denver’s light rail | AspenTimes.com

Riding Denver’s light rail

Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

My brother and I rode the Denver light-rail system last weekend, traveling from Golden to Union Station. It was pretty fast, making the trip in 40 minutes. The train whisked us through neighborhoods we otherwise wouldn’t see. The cost was only $4 one way, and we didn’t have to pay or scramble to find a parking spot once downtown.

The trip made me think about our own Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and its $46 million expansion. New, large, efficient buses will be added to RFTA’s fleet to increase the frequency and decrease the travel time between Aspen and points downvalley. The bus stops are more comfortable and will feature up-to-date information about bus status. The expanded bus system, known as VelociRFTA, is slated to debut Sept. 3.

The Denver FasTracks trip made me look at VelociRFTA with two very different views. Did RFTA shortchange itself by going with a fancy upgrade to a bus system, or did it exercise fiscal restraint by expanding its successful system rather than spending significantly more money for light rail?

There’s no doubt that the RTD light-rail system in the Denver metro area is cool and convenient. Massive parking structures were built at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Golden, the Federal Center in Lakewood and four other locations along the “W Line” from the western suburbs to Union Station downtown. The line opened in late April.

The train cranks up to speed that is competitive with private vehicles, but it stops with increasing frequency the closer it gets to downtown. The train stops 11 times during the 12.1-mile journey to Union Station. It passes through heavy-duty industrial areas, cute neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes and multi-family districts stuffed with apartment buildings, trailer parks and condos.

Trains run every 7.5 minutes during the heart of the day and every 30 minutes at quieter intervals. The seats were comfortable, and safety wasn’t a concern. Bikes are allowed in train cars.

If RFTA would have pursued such an option in the Roaring Fork Valley, as train backers were lobbying for, it would have required significantly more than the $46 million being spent on the bus expansion. The 12.1-mile “W Line” cost $707 million. In addition to costly parking garages, a bridge was required over busy Sixth Avenue. Traffic at many side streets must stop when the train slides by. You can bet that would infuriate impatient Roaring Fork Valley drivers.

It’s a tough call. RFTA settled for a system that isn’t up to light rail’s standards, but fiscal reality might have required such a move.

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