Denver Faces Light Rail vs. Bus Decision

The financial data is clear: BRT costs much less to go further and serve far more riders. Case closed, or is it? The Denver Post editors look at HNTB's cost and ridership estimates for the Northwest Rail Line and offer a recommendation, sort of.

October 11, 2013, 10:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


A bus next to the re-located light rail station at Denver's Union Station

Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons

The editorial board reviews the findings reported by Monte Whaley on the Northwest Rail Line, "a 41-mile high-capacity, fixed-guideway transit project from Denver Union Station to Longmont," according to Regional Transportation District (RTD) of Denver's webpage on the FasTracks project.  Funding is available only for the first 6.2-mile segment from Union Station to south Westminster, currently under construction. After that, it gets interesting if alternatives are considered.

The next segment, 11 miles "from Westminster to Broomfield could cost as much as $681 million while about 100 miles of enhanced bus service [aka, BRT] in the northern suburbs would cost roughly half that and serve nearly eight times as many passengers, according to an analysis (PDF) for the Regional Transportation District", writes Whaley.

RTD agency hopes to bring a recommendation of the best transit option — commuter [light] rail, bus rapid transit [BRT] or a combination of both — to the governing board for a vote in early 2014.

It was these startling findings that prompted the editorial. Their fuzzy recommendation: "We can't have the Northwest Line at any cost". Without outright concluding that BRT is preferable over the expensive light rail extension that the people voted for in 2004 as part of the ambitious FasTracks projects, the editorial implies it. However, it points to reasons not to immediately abandon the train in favor of the bus.

  • These are only preliminary findings; the study may yield other options.
  • These are only estimates for capital costs, and under that analysis, rail is always more expensive at first. And other factors have still to be measured, such as accompanying economic development.
  • We've said [last March] we want folks in the northern suburbs to get the rail they were promised if possible.

The editorial board suggests that if the northwest communities want to stick with the costly rail option that they were promised, more funding will be needed, such as a "statewide tax issue for transportation, preferably user fees like fuel taxes to pay for roads and transit." This clear funding recommendation for the type of funding option is in reference to a non-user fee proposal being considered to place a ".7%, 10-year general sales tax on the 2014 ballot."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 in The Denver Post

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