Denver Union Station

With Denver on the FasTracks, Hoping the Twin Cities Aren’t Derailed

Last month Denver opened its long-awaited A Line train service connecting downtown and Denver International Airport. The twenty-three mile service takes thirty-seven minutes and costs nine dollars each way. The important fact that Minneapolis has had downtown to airport train service for 12 years notwithstanding, the opening of Denver’s A Line is symbolic of something much more. The A Line represents more than a decade of political and financial commitment in the Denver region (and the State of Colorado) to building transit infrastructure. Here in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Legislature’s uncertainty about funding the Green Line extension (SWLRT) represents a potential long-term threat to the future viability and mobility of the entire state.

The A Line is but one piece of a significant, coordinated plan to expand transit service in the Denver region. It is the fruits of FasTracks, a tax increase approved in 2004 through a contentious but concerted effort by the Denver region to cooperate as a whole to improve mobility for all. One look at the FasTracks map shows an impressive display of transit expansion and regional coverage. Perhaps most impressive, the A Line is not the only transit line opening in Denver in 2016. Five, count them, FIVE, new transit lines are due to open this year.

Contrast this to the Twin Cities, where a single line may be cancelled in 2016 if the Minnesota Legislature doesn’t step up to fund the state’s share of the cost. To be fair, the Twin Cities has transit successes. The first legs of the Blue and Green Line exceeded ridership expectations, and development is occurring near train stations. Bus service is also good, and the Twin Cities has its own A Line, a rapid bus service set to open in June of this year. The problem is, the Twin Cities lags behind the Denvers of the world due to a lack of dedicated funding for transit improvements. Bus and rail improvements tend to be a series of one-off projects, built when the political stars align, but all too often also bus improvements get delayed. This is no way to make the region and state competitive in the long-term.

I applaud the efforts of Twin Cities regional business leaders and a few mayors for recent editorials in the Star Tribune in support of dedicated funding. However, two things jump out at me in the mayors’ editorial. First, the piece is pretty vague on specifics and doesn’t single out the importance of individual lines, particularly funding and building the Green Line extension (Southwest Corridor (SWLRT)). Second, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul aren’t part of this particular call for more transit funding, and I can’t figure out why not. The collective call for more transit funding must be more universal.

In 2004, the year the Twin Cities first light rail line opened, the Denver region approved $4.7 billion for transit expansion. In 2016, five transit lines will open in Denver and the State of Minnesota may not come up with $130 million (3% of $4.7 billion) to fund its next signature transit project. An optimist will say 2016 is an inflection point for the future of transportation in the Twin Cities and Minnesota; this is our chance to fund future mobility in our region and state, if only our leadership is up to the task. A pessimist will say 2004 was the inflection point, and the current results in Denver are proof that the Twin Cities have fallen hopelessly behind. Let’s keep in mind that in 2003 Denver didn’t have a long-term transit funding solution, so I’d like to remain optimistic.

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 “With Denver on the FasTracks, Hoping the Twin Cities Aren’t Derailed

  1. Monte Castleman

    I’m not a fan of bonding bills to fund what we need. A better solution is to find a dedicated funding source rather than try to patch things up here and there every other year. Also the political nature lends itself to abuse. Obviously we need more roads, transit, prisons, and sewage plants, but what in the world is the state doing funding a Jolly Green Giant museum (proof the Republicans line up at the trough just as much as Democrats).

  2. Mike Hicks

    There has been some discussion of funding strategies over on the forum. One thought would be to increase the transit sales tax, but rather than just being a metro-area tax funding the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), it could be extended statewide. This would allow funding of both metro-area transit lines as well as intercity routes to stitch together a much broader network

    A 1% statewide sales tax would probably pull in about $740 million annually, which could fund a lot of stuff. I’m not sure if 1% is a good or bad level, but I believe it’s the number used in the Denver metro area. That’s quite a lot of dough, though sometimes I wonder if even that’s enough considering how under-funded our local and intercity public transportation has been for so long, especially in comparison to highways.

    MnDOT spends around $1 billion each year on the trunk highway system, and funnels another $1 billion to counties and cities, plus another similarly-sized chunk for everything else the agency does. And that doesn’t count what cities and counties spend of their own money to build/repair roadways.

    Just one year’s worth of what we spend on highways would probably fully fund the state passenger rail plan for regional/intercity service, and like in Denver, that amount could fund a great deal of metro-area transit (and perhaps some nice service improvements in St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester, etc).

    Ideally, spending more on public transportation would help us to more sanely trim back spending on highways. We’ve been feeding a vicious cycle with the existing funding schemes, and always leave the transit planners scrounging for cash so much that we only ever make studies, but hardly ever implement anything. Loosening up the purse strings is really critical to allowing the good ideas to flow.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Speaking only of the metro, we currently spend about $1.65bn a year on MnDOT, County, and Local roads (including local spend, not just state aid through MnDOT) (source)

      If you put conservative estimates on number of cars in the metro (2 million) and annual cost of owning/operating each one ($3,500), we’re talking $7bn more spent by people on driving/infra. Transit operating + capital costs for the region hover between $6-800m depending on if we’re in the middle of building a major rail project or not.

      There’s an alternate universe where we spent/spend much more on transit but much less on roads and highways because land uses complemented the former, and as a region we spend less total on transportation, with people who can’t afford cars having much better job access.

      In our current world, it shouldn’t be crazy to spend more on transit, even if it is sometimes chasing rainbows. But maybe it’s not a bad thing to tie that extra money to some operations and capital reforms to bring cost per rider served down a bit (can of worms, that).

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Yes, although the recent editorials and op-ed pieces in the Star Tribune about the Met Council should remind us that here our planning has been hampered and reduced by the parochial interests of individual municipal and county governments. We can see it happening with the current Gold Line proposal, and in how the Green Line got lamed in favor of trying to promote development at five intersections instead of providing the region with a viable rail rapid transit trunk line. And I think we can see it in the ineptitude of the Southwest Corridor process.

    That’s why I favor having a Met Council that’s accountable to the public, one elected from districts of equal populations, one that would have the power and authority to make decisions of long-range benefit to the region.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Maybe you can explain how a Met Council of elected leaders from local districts would be less prone to fights over parochial interests vs a the current body that, at least according to detractors, is not accountable to local municipalities and favors regional goals at the expense of local benefit.

      The reality is that local interests are almost too strong in our current system. As you point out, the Green Line was re-designed to include several infill stations (in addition to the routing that allowed many between each downtown to begin with). We disagree whether this is a good or bad outcome, but it was an outcome. Same with SWLRT, Bottineau, Gold Line, etc routing and station locations. Local (city and county) interest in getting a regional share of the funding pie and the threat of denying municipal consent all bring local interests to the forefront. By nature, CTIB has its hands tied to spend transit capital dollars across the region, regardless of ridership potential, current land uses, and local willingness to make meaningful changes to land use and transportation policy.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        I’m sure there has been a lot of local issues particular to routing and station location in Denver as well. I’d love to hear some of those stories.

        I’ve always seen presentations of FasTracks as this amazing collaboration among the mayors of Denver (Hickenlooper at the time) and its suburbs. I’m sure the agreement involved negotiations you can’t learn about in a short presentation. But it’s notable they did it with a much weaker regional government than the Met Council. Also, given that portions of Colorado actually want to form their own state, there is obviously an urban vs. rural divide like in Minnesota. But the Denver region agreed to tax themselves, so give them a lot of credit now that the results are showing.

        1. Nick

          And folks in Boulder are now revolting against FasTracks because their train line has been delayed indefinitely. So it was definitely a political deal and it only happened because everyone got something in the plan.

    2. Nick

      So basically, you want more entrenched policy makers to drive the transportation development process? That doesn’t sound more efficient… in fact it sounds worse. Knowing a couple staff members at the Met Council very well, I can say that they dislike working on some of these projects as much as people here like reading about them. They will also tell you that it is elected officials pushing the issue and the Met Council members are trying to walk a tightrope. Let the council be elected by population-proportional districts and you can kiss any sort of goal to level racial and economic gaps goodbye. We’ll end up with a gold (-plated BRT) line to every far-flung village and the same urban transit frequency and quality as 10 years ago.

  4. D.J.

    I’m not a fan of one part of this article, but the treat is a good read. How can you compare Denver’s COMMUTER RAIL line B to the twin cities LIGHT RAIL line??? Should be thanking SEPTA, the patriarch of connecting a commuter rail line to its airport in America. But its still a very interesting read.

    1. Mike Hicks

      Denver’s commuter rail lines are of special interest to me because they’re being built to support fairly high-frequency service (every 15 minutes on the A Line), electrified, and with long duration of service. Building them as commuter rail also lets the trains go a bit faster — I believe the top speed is 75 mph on the A Line, as compared to 55 mph on our light-rail trains. That’s a fairly different model than what has been done in most other places, where commuter trains only run during rush hours, or only run hourly during much of the day (maybe half-hourly during peak periods).

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Right, Mike. Besides, the distance from downtown to Denver’s airport is so great that a faster train is required. Effectively it takes the same amount of time to get from respective downtowns to the airport in Minneapolis and Denver, which is great for both cities!

  5. Scott

    Interesting article. I’m curious to know more about how well the rail network connects Denver and the rest of the Metro (It sounds impressive). I imagine most routes start downtown and serve Denver neighborhoods before heading out to suburbs, right? Has their rail investment created a lot of transit oriented development? (Haven’t been to Denver for 12 years when only a couple LRT lines were running, but it seemed sort of low density and spread out.)

    I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by the routing of proposed MSP rail lines (SW, Bottneau, Gold, etc.) because they do such a poor job of of serving the central cities and go out to unwalkable, car- oriented places. It’s hard to get excited about the system here because of that. If the Met Council is so strong, why is this region so sprawling and car-focused?

    1. Wyatt

      If Minneapolis tried to build a light-rail network like Denver’s, people at this website would revolt against it. Denver does have high-density neighborhoods, especially Capitol Hill, which having lived there I would anecdotally say feels like a Loring Park/Stevens Square/Lowry Hill level of density. Light rail doesn’t serve it. Most of the lines run along the I-25 interstate corridor, and skirt around the edges of residential neighborhoods. The stations are few are far between. They exist primarily to serve suburban commuters* and/or urban reverse commuters heading to work at the massive office parks south of the city along I-25. Many nominally “different” lines are basically the same line, sharing the same track, until they reach the suburbs. That said, Denver has an insane amount of new development happening constantly, and I would assume that a lot of it is near those light rail stations. I will refrain from attempting to determine whether or not the Denver model vindicates the SWLRT alignment, suffice to say that I suspect it is not as bad as it is often made out to be.

      (*The one exception is the D line, which runs through the Five Points neighborhood just northeast of downtown, with frequent stops, but then abruptly ends at 30th & Dowling.)

      1. H Ellis Beck

        Agreed with Wyatt, I’m a current resident of Capitol Hill (and a very near future resident of S Minneapolis), which as he said is a dense, young neighborhood. My closest LRT station is about 1.5 miles away. Sometimes I wonder if the Denver system was built to serve the professional sports teams, as you generally see a lot more people from the suburbs in Broncos/Rockies/Nuggets gear on the train than people from the city in suits/business attire.

        It’s a bit strange, as when the 2016 commuter rail is completed it will be easier/faster/cheaper to get from a second ring suburb to get to Union Station for a drink than it is for me in the urban core.

        So yes, it’s a big and growing system, but it feels like lot less of a system could have done a lot more for Denver residents.

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