Denver Union Station Sets a Mile-High Bar for Rail Hubs

Denver Union Station may well be the most impressive rail hub project in the United States today. I must admit to being pretty wowed by the presentation for development of the station and its 20-acre environs at the ULI Fall Meeting in Denver last week. For one, it isn’t just a proposal; it is under construction. It’s happening! The station itself will open in 2014 and the rest of the transit infrastructure will be done in 2016. As well, there will be significant private development immediately surrounding the station.

That is precisely what interests me the most – the opportunity for people to actually use the station. There is an impressive combination of transit-oriented development, public space and opportunity for passengers to board, alight, and transfer at this station. When FasTracks is complete, there will be several light rail lines, possibly a couple commuter rail lines, bus rapid transit, commuter buses, Amtrak and the 16th Street Mall Shuttle.

While I suffer from the “grass is greener” syndrome, I can’t shake the impressive scale of Denver Union Station, so I did a little exploring. Is it really better than other planned rail hubs? The Denver Urbanism site has a very cool list of major rail hubs in the United States, some of which are plans, some funded and some under construction.

Here in the Twin Cities, there are two projects under construction, including the St. Paul Union Depot project listed on the Denver Urbanism site. But there is also The Interchange, which just broke ground this year in Minneapolis. I decided to compare and contrast the Denver, St. Paul and Minneapolis projects, all of which are impressive in their own right.

When St. Paul’s Union Depot opens in late 2012 or early 2013, it will feature one daily Amtrak trip in each direction for the Empire Builder service between Chicago and Seattle (I for one cannot wait to “test drive” the Depot for a train trip to Milwaukee or Chicago). In 2014, the Green Line light rail will open, with service terminating at Union Depot, which will also feature bus service by Greyhound, Jefferson Lines and Metro Transit. Future service could include a combination of four streetcar, commuter rail or bus rapid transit lines and possible high-speed rail service to Chicago.

The Interchange in Minneapolis will open in 2014 at the opposite terminus of the Green Line light rail line. It will also feature existing service by the Blue Line light rail and Northstar commuter rail. Future rail lines will include Southwest light rail (in 2018?), and possible Bottineau light rail and rail service to Duluth and Chicago.

By comparison, in 2016 Denver Union Station will serve a pretty extensive combination of three light rail lines, two commuter rail lines, Amtrak, regional bus service and its wonderful the 16th Street Mall shuttle, a key piece of “the last mile” puzzle that gets passengers to within a couple blocks of most downtown Denver destinations – for free.   The budget for Denver Union Station is $491 million, the Minneapolis Interchange $79 million, and St. Paul Union Depot $243 million.

Passenger counts are most interesting (I tried as closely as possible to compare apples to apples). In 2014, St. Paul’s Union Depot will handle 925,000 passengers per year – divided by 365, that is close to 2,600 per day (of course, weekday service will be greater and weekend less). The Interchange in Minneapolis will handle 4,000 passengers per day in 2014, and close to 12,000 on Minnesota Twins game days (Target Field is immediately adjacent the station). Denver Union Station is forecast to handle more than 200,000 passengers per day at full service. Considering FasTracks will be largely complete by 2016, one can estimate well north of 100,000 and perhaps 150,000 passengers per day at that time. Forecast hourly morning boardings of the 16th Street Mall shuttle alone exceed 5,000, or more than daily service forecast at Union Depot or The Interchange. By contrast, Grand Central Station in New York City handles 750,000 passengers per day. Think about it – it is pretty damn impressive if Denver can reach one-quarter the daily traffic of Grand Central.

Do the math. If you divide the total budget for each of the three projects by daily passengers, the result is $4,800 for Denver Union Station (at 100,000 a conservative passengers per day – half that cost at full buildout), $20,000 for The Interchange and nearly $100,000 for St. Paul Union Depot. The figure will improve for The Interchange, but even a best-case scenario for St. Paul in terms of future passengers gets that number down to around $20,000. Also keep in mind some of the $491 million in Denver is private sector dollars, so the return on public investment is even better.

There is more to these hubs than the transit service itself. The Denver Union Station site is approximately 20 acres, and the city created a TIF district and entered in to an extensive public/private partnership with developers to construct 2,000 units of housing, 3 million square feet of office space and 300,000 square feet of retail. The 20 acre site is sandwiched between the Downtown/LoDo and Riverfront Park neighborhoods, all of which have experienced significant recent development in the past two decades. Yes, Denver was lucky to have 20 acres largely vacant with which to work; let’s not forget that.

St. Paul’s Union Depot is in the historic Lowertown neighborhood, full of beautiful restored warehouses, ongoing housing development and a recently-approved minor league ballpark for the St. Paul Saints. The Depot will house additional new office and retail space. The Interchange straddles the booming North Loop neighborhood and the edge of downtown Minneapolis, and is immediately adjacent and intertwined with Target Field. Across the street the 270,000 Ford Center was recently renovated in to office space, and Hines Interests owns a nearby 6-acre site and is planning up to 500 housing units and 600,000 square feet of office, of which the 185-unit Dock Street Apartments are under construction. The rail hub site will include opportunities for retail space and a hotel site.

So what of the experience of the citizen? What do we get out of it? Each plan takes in to account that these are public spaces intended for more than just transit riders. Denver Union Station will be a comprehensive grid of at-grade streets and pedestrian mall and plazas in addition to the existing beautiful rail station itself. The Interchange will be a large public space “cascading” down a grade change between Target Field and the North Loop, including a “great lawn” and “station square.” The drawback of the Interchange is poor pedestrian connections in three directions, although city plans and future development will mitigate some of this. St. Paul’s Union Depot is a beautiful old rail station located in a walkable neighborhood with an existing nearby park and farmers market. So for each project, there is existing and planned high-quality public space that is difficult to put a value on.

All three stations will feature simple and relatively seamless transfers from rail or bus to other modes of transportation and nearby destinations on foot, and are generating private development interest nearby. Make no mistake, these and other rail hubs around the U.S. are important to get cars off the road and create value for cities, and likely all are worthy of public dollars. But Denver gives me pause; they get more bang for their buck in every possible way, from level of service, leveraging private development, public realm and simple investment cost per passenger. Some of it is luck, but much of this is forward thinking and consensus of leadership, citizens and the private sector over time to understand the value of long-term transit, infrastructure and placemaking investments.

If Denver isn’t a more prosperous and beautiful place in 10 or 20 years due to the Union Station hub, I’ll reconsider my choice of career. In the meantime, I look forward to these hubs opening in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Denver, particularly taking that train from Denver International Airport to Union Station in 2016.

this was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

14 thoughts on “Denver Union Station Sets a Mile-High Bar for Rail Hubs

  1. Jeramey Jannene

    Having been able to wander around the area in Denver this summer over two days I was struck by the scale of the project. It is going to connect a number of transit modes, which a lot of facilities do. But better than simple connections, it's going to connect a lot of facilities that offer very frequent service. Light rail and 16th Street Mall buses will be coming and going from the station all day long. This bodes well for nearby businesses, and will make it a great place to locate high density housing. The scale of people that will flow through the facility is both hard to fathom and incredibly obvious once you start to consider each of the individual pieces.

    In brief, the Denver Union Station overhaul is going to significantly change the nature of Denver for the better.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Oops. Thanks for pointing this out. Ironic indeed that light rail physically pushed Greyhound out of St. Paul. Too bad they won't relocate. I have not heard whether they have considered or even could make The Interchange work. So many bus stations have no meaningful transit connections – feels like a missed opportunity.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        St. Paul and Minneapolis are not unique. It also appears that Greyhound will not move in to Denver Union Station – again, not sure why they don't value high-quality transit connections. I suppose if riders demanded it….

        1. Alex

          I was looking through the list on Denver Urbanism, and I was surprised at how many do include bus facilities – including Atlanta, which will have 3 levels of buses. Greyhound's issue with SPUD easily could have been that they want to keep to one location in MSP, and Jefferson Lines, which probably has more service in MN anyway, will be at SPUD. Neither bus company was invited to the Interchange, nor were the vast majority of Metro Transit riders, who are on buses rather than trains. I would add that the Hawthorne Depot does have good transit connections, just not to any trains.

      2. Nathaniel Hood

        Any idea where Greyhound will relocate? And, does MegaBus have any plans to change? I agree that too many bus stops have meaningless drop-offs. E.g.: MegaBus drops off miles outside of town out by the interstate connector in Madison, WI – at least last time I used it 3 years ago but it looks like they may have added a UofW stop? – It works great if you have someone in a car to come pick you up when you arrive. Otherwise, it's a long miserable walk, a taxi ride or getting very lucky with transit.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          I don't think Greyhound will relocate. They'll stay put at their station in Minneapolis, which is indeed served pretty well by transit, being located near Hennepin Av.

  2. Faith

    The Interchange is so cheap because it's not a train station. It's an elevated train platform and a 250 stall parking garage with a "great lawn" on top. Intercity bus, local bus, express bus and any future streetcars will be a 10 minute LRT train ride or 15 minute walk away.

    Denver is making a much better investment by connecting all of their transit modes in one location. I think Denver had a lot of foresight keeping their rail lines in place and their building intact on the northern end of their downtown when Minneapolis was removing its rail infrastructure and creating a hotel and ice skating rink out of it's last train station. In hindsight, that may not have been the best idea.

    1. Nathaniel Hood

      250 parking stalls? Why do we continue to subsidize transit's competition? And, I'd agree with Faith's comment on the Minneapolis Depot rail and hotel redevelopment. I wonder if we'll face these issues in the future and undo some of our "rails-to-trails" bike pathways?

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        I'd be curious to see how many rails to trails remained under ownership by a rail authority – while converting back to rail could be politically unpopular, it may be a question of the greater good. Of course, reinstalling rail would cost money and operations would be subsidized, whereas freeways are still free.

        1. Josh

          I feel it is important to acknowledge what might be the obvious. Denver has the luxury of being one true center for its region. It makes planning for a main regional hub easy.

          1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

            A very good point! In a way, it's too bad St. Paul and Minneapolis are separated by 11 miles. It would be wonderful if we could only combine the best aspects of the two hubs, if for no other reason than to stop fighting over which city gets high-speed rail, or simply Amtrak service.

  3. Aaron R. Sweeney

    I live in central Madison, WI. All Megabuses stop at the university now, along with Jefferson and others. Most other points of interest are walkable from there. So come on down if you want. The old stop was pretty miserable with local buses only during commuter times. Greyhound on the other hand doesn't even stop in the city limits.

  4. Nathanael

    Greyhound is in a death spiral. That's what's going on there. They'd have to pay a few bucks to go into Denver Union Station, so they won't.

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