Expanding Statewide Transit: Lessons from Colorado

About a month ago, stretched out in the cushy seat of a coach commuter bus, I glanced up from my book and wiped the fog from the window. Outside, the Flatirons loomed over the Front Range. In the distance, I spotted a familiar landmark: the red-arched pedestrian bridge spanning US-36 near McCaslin Boulevard. I smiled. Home was close — at least, the place I had called home seven years ago.

Seven years. It seemed impossible that it had been so long since I walked out of my last day of middle school, enjoying the warm summer air of Boulder, Colorado. Over the years, I’d found reasons to visit. My friends and I kept in touch. I took trips with my family during winter breaks. But this time, I was visiting by myself, on my own schedule, and darn it, I was going to ride as many buses and trains as possible!

Snowy mountains rise above Canyon Boulevard near Downtown Boulder Station.

Boulder is a fairly small city — just over 100,000 people. That’s a little less populous than Rochester, Minnesota; and yet, Boulder punches way above its weight as a transit- and pedestrian-friendly urbanist’s ideal.

As I wandered through my old stomping grounds, I was able to appreciate the planning and urban design elements that make Boulder such an attractive destination (and an increasingly expensive housing market):

  • The cute storefronts of downtown, opening to well-lit and vibrant streetscapes.
  • The network of protected bike lanes and off-street trails, popular among recreational cyclists and everyday commuters.
  • The pedestrianized Pearl Street Mall, where I used to go trick-or-treating as a kid.

And look at the bike parking at the downtown transit station!

Multilevel bike racks at Boulder’s bus station

When I stepped off my bus in downtown Boulder, I was shocked at how easy the journey was. Growing up in a tiny mountain community near Boulder, I had always thought of Denver as some faraway metropolis. Whenever I got to visit on special occasions, it felt like a trip to New York City. Yet not even an hour earlier, I’d been wandering through the Union Station concourse and staring at a digital schedule. An express bus to Boulder? Leaving every 15 minutes? When did that happen?

Departures board at the Denver Union Station bus concourse

Quite a lot had changed in my home state. As far as I could remember, there had never been a rapid transit connection between Boulder and Denver, only the ever-delayed prospect of commuter rail the city had been waiting for since the early 2000s. Now, Boulder receives direct bus rapid transit service to Denver and its suburbs as well as Denver International Airport.

So what happened? Where did all of Colorado’s BRT come from? Where else does it go? And is this something we can replicate in the great state of Minnesota?

The Fast Track to Success

The iconic sign of Union Station, originally paying homage to an era gone by

The morning of Tuesday, November 2 dawned cool and crisp. The streets of downtown Denver buzzed with anticipation and trepidation as its residents flocked to Union Station. The once barren and desolate Great Hall was packed with advocates, policymakers and their constituents, all awaiting the final vote with bated breath.

This was Election Day 2004 — the culmination of all their relentless campaigning to bring Referendum 4A before the voters. FasTracks, the master plan backed by Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), marked arguably the most ambitious expansion of public transportation in the entire country.

I remember the scene vividly. OK, not really. I was only 2 years old at the time. But I did listen to an excellent podcast from Colorado Public Radio called Ghost Train, which recounted the long and arduous endeavor to transform one of America’s most polluted cities into a bastion of transit-oriented planning and sustainable urban development. Through the months, even years of legislative battles and public engagement following the opening of Denver’s first light rail line in 1994, supporters of FasTracks were beginning to feel the tide turn. They were tired of the endless traffic. Tired of the bleak, inhospitable and dangerous streets. Tired of the smog that enveloped the skyline and obscured the mountains during morning rush hour. It even had a name, like San Francisco’s fog monster Karl, though Denver’s “Brown Cloud” was far less flattering. It was an indictment of the age of the automobile — and the cost at which it had come.

Two infographics speaking to the importance of enhanced transit (Source: RTD)

Union Station was once the crown jewel of the city, serving as the central hub for commuters, travelers and tourists alike. When the railroads were shut down and the streetcar tracks ripped up, it became a husk, an empty, dilapidated, depressing reminder of what was lost when Denver suburbanized and succumbed to car dependency.

Now, transit advocates were invigorated by the prospect of renewed rail service. Referendum 4A, if successful, could breathe life into Union Station once again and restore its importance as Denver’s transportation nexus. It was only fitting that those who had fought so hard for the measure to appear on the ballot gathered there to await the voters’ decision.

A voice read out the initial tally: “56 to 44.” And the Great Hall erupted into a cacophony of cheers.

An Unprecedented Vision

An RTD A Line commuter train at Peoria station

In 2004, the Denver region voted to approve a 0.4% sales tax increase throughout the eight-county metro area. This, in conjunction with federal funding and private partnership, allowed RTD to move forward with FasTracks — a multibillion-dollar project that would add over 100 miles of rail on top of commuter and express bus service.

Denver would see a revitalization of Union Station under the plan, with new greenery, restaurants, amenities and an underground bus concourse to boot.

Union Station revitalization rendering (Source: Denver Union Station Project Authority)

Twenty years have passed since the vote to get FasTracks off the ground. Since then, Denver has opened six new rail lines and extended three others. Certainly RTD has been busy. But has it kept its promises? Are the voters satisfied with the FasTracks program, and has it proven itself beneficial to Denver and the state of Colorado?

Despite the increased sales tax going into effect in 2005, it wasn’t until 2013 that RTD opened the W Line, its first light rail service created under FasTracks. In 2016, the long-awaited commuter rail finally began operations, with the A Line and B Line connecting Union Station to the Denver International Airport and Westminster, respectively.

RTD light rail (W Line) and commuter rail (A Line) trains

The following years saw a boom in construction: The R Line opened in 2017, the first crosstown light rail serving East Denver along the I-225 corridor. To a casual rider, this might look like a run-of-the-mill LRT line. But anyone who’s been following the progress of London’s new Elizabeth Line or Toronto’s Eglinton LRT can appreciate the virtues of decentralized rapid transit lines that do not radiate out of a central hub.

A case study of London’s crosstown Elizabeth Line (Source: London Property Alliance)

2019 saw the E, F and R lines lengthened as part of the Southeast Rail Extension. The final two commuter services, the G Line and N Line, opened in 2019 and 2020, the latter mere months after the onset of the pandemic and the national lockdown that followed.

Stagnation and Controversy

FasTracks has garnered a lot of criticism throughout the past 20 years. Opponents who were outspoken against the plan in 2004 pounced on RTD’s shortcomings, while voters who had supported it were left with too many unanswered questions. Budgets had gone up. Development was slowed. Timelines were overrun. Boulder was supposed to see 84 daily trains by 2025. It may not be until 2044 that the B Line finally reaches Boulder. I would not be writing in good faith if I were to laud FasTracks as an unmarred success. Boulder is still bitter about it — its residents are paying taxes for a train they were supposed to have 10 years ago. But had I been old enough to vote in 2004 — with hindsight and all — I would still have voted yes on Referendum 4A. The FasTracks project, for all of its setbacks and all of its compromises, has transformed Denver in a way that no other, less ambitious plan could have.

Four infographics demonstrating the success of transit in Colorado (Source: RTD)

The development of the project, alongside several reforms championed by the proponents of FasTracks, made Denver and the surrounding region cleaner, healthier and more sustainable. Transit ridership is growing across all modes. Neighborhoods are densifying. The urban population is rising. New affordable housing units and mixed-use developments are being built near transit in and outside of the urban core.

Infographic showing improvements in transit and VMT (Source: City of Denver — TOD Strategic Plan)

When you look at the growth of the city since these provisions took effect, the results speak for themselves. It’s not only the skyline that’s swelled impressively. Dotted throughout the city’s inner suburbs are several dense pockets — bona fide transit-oriented development — adding a wealth of jobs and housing to a region that desperately needs them.

Growth of the Denver skyline (Source: All About Colorado)

Union Station was once a place to avoid, especially after dark. Now, whenever I’m in town for a Colorado Avalanche game, the area is bustling with activity. Everywhere from 16th Street Mall to Larimer Square is brimming with pedestrians and cyclists. Nearby restaurants and breweries, which wouldn’t exist if not for the revitalization plan, are jam-packed with fans.

The pedestrianized Larimer Square on the day of the Avs’ Stanley Cup championship parade

And when the Avs hockey team celebrated its 2022 Stanley Cup championship, half a million people attended the parade at Civic Center Park. The traffic was heavy enough as is. Without a robust regional transit network bringing thousands of fans to the heart of the city? Forget it. A celebration of this scale would never have been possible.

500,000 Avs fans (try to spot me!) at Civic Center Park (Source: Denver Business Journal)

Twenty-Year Takeaways

The development of FasTracks set a new precedent for transportation planning in the Denver region. This was not just a simple “hub and spoke” rail network of the type that has become so common in North America. RTD emphasized the need to strengthen suburb-to-suburb transit, creating express bus corridors connecting communities to commercial nodes, medical centers and the airport.

A handful of BRT/express bus routes that do not serve downtown Denver (Source: RTD Next Ride)

On top of that, RTD now operates several BRT routes from Denver to its own suburbs, nearby cities and, of course, ski resorts. Their collective ridership gains are showing no sign of slowing down, taking more traffic off of Colorado’s highways as new services are opened.

Similar bus routes connecting downtown Denver to surrounding regions (Source: RTD Next Ride)

In 2016, to satisfy ever-growing demand for travel options between Boulder and Denver, RTD launched the Flatiron Flyer. The completion of this project was met with enthusiasm from both ends of the Boulder-Denver turnpike as well as several smaller communities in between. At the time of opening, this stretch of US-36 carried over 7.2 million cars per year and experienced notoriously congested traffic. Given the B Line was still decades away from its long-overdue extension to Boulder, a quicker alternative was sought after.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony opening the Flatiron Flyer
  • “Access is extremely important to all of us. We have to be able to move people. And that doesn’t mean one person in a car.” Westminster Mayor Herb Atchison
  • “When I go out and talk to the various business CEOs and CFOs and COOs…they always talk about transportation, transportation, transportation. How do they get their folks to and from work?” Broomfield Mayor Randy Ahrens
  • “I think it’s going to give our residents more options for how to get to special events, how to get to work — and know that there’s going to be reliable service. They’re not going to have to think about, ‘Is this going to fit into my schedule?’” Superior Mayor Clint Folson

This 18-mile BRT corridor runs express service between Boulder and Denver with several interlined branches. Together, they cover multiple transit terminals in both cities, the University of Colorado Boulder campus, and key suburbs like Broomfield and Louisville.

A map of RTD stops and terminals (Source: RTD)

Two years after opening, Colorado approved new legislation allowing buses to drive on highway shoulders, bypassing traffic when necessary. RTD and the Colorado Department of Transportation jointly managed a project adding express lanes to US-36 for the benefit of the Flatiron Flyer, and signal priority was enabled at intersections to keep buses moving on schedule instead of sitting at red lights.

A list of corridor infrastructure improvements (Source: RTD)

In the years leading up to the pandemic, the Flatiron Flyer recorded an annual ridership of 3.3 million and increasing. That comes out to over 9,000 rides per day. On its own, it is not a complete replacement for rail; but it’s proven a vital stopgap until the B Line is finally extended. When that time comes, the two will be complementary rather than competing services. This is the case all over the world — major transit corridors are strengthened when they are served by both bus and rail. The latter requires a more substantial investment upfront, not to mention committing to a longer project timeline. This is why so many promising rail proposals are watered down to BRT — it’s an easier sell to politicians and their constituents, even though it’s not as robust and future-proof.

In the short term, however, effective bus service can demonstrate demand in regions that are overlooked, quickly establishing strong rider bases where, previously, a car was the only viable travel option. The Flatiron Flyer is not RTD’s endgame; but an alternative such as this — especially one that comes every 15 minutes — is enough to turn some heads and put a sizeable dent in traffic. If you want to induce a meaningful mode shift, the best thing a commuter sitting in rush hour traffic can see is a bus passing them by.

Regional and Statewide Transit

Northstar gameday train at Target Field station

The Flatiron Flyer was a transformational project, one that set a new standard for highway BRT in Colorado; but the 18-mile corridor is a far cry from a far-reaching statewide transit network. The Twin Cities could benefit from replicating the Flatiron Flyer (to some extent), serving its outlying suburbs and nearby cities in the seven-county metro area. The Orange Line is not too dissimilar, tracing I-35 south of Minneapolis to Bloomington and Burnsville along a crucial commercial corridor. Allowing buses access to the shoulder along the entire route would go a long way, especially during rush hour.

I-35 and Lake St station

Similarly, RTD’s non-commuter BRT lines could influence how we plan metro-wide transit; for instance, adding direct bus service between existing park-and-rides and MSP airport. Or new crosstown lines, like the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s (MTVA) County Road 42 proposal. Our suburbs deserve fast, frequent, efficient transit — and not just to their core cities.

But what about the likes of Rochester and St. Cloud? Smaller cities like Mankato and Owatonna? These lie far outside of the Twin Cities’ sphere of influence, yet traffic volumes indicate consistent demand for travel to and from Minneapolis and St. Paul. All of our significant outstate cities should have a rail connection — and some such projects are already in the works. Amtrak expects to return to Duluth by the end of the decade with its Northern Lights Express; the Northstar commuter train is awaiting a study for an extension to St. Cloud; and talks of Rochester Zip Rail are being revived now that the state’s moratorium on new regional rail has been overturned.

Northstar commuter train at Big Lake station

These projects have momentum, especially given the recent breakthroughs from our transit-progressive legislature. But most of them are a long way off. Other cities not mentioned — Faribault, Bemidji, Grand Rapids — who knows when they’ll become part of Minnesota’s growing rail network? In the interim, we should focus on adding abundant bus service throughout the state to provide transportation alternatives for non-metro Minnesotans and supplement future rail corridors that have yet to come to fruition.

So, does my home state have anything we can learn about that?

Colorado intercity transit map (Source: TedRosenbaum.com)

In 2015, Colorado opened its inaugural state-run bus service. The flagship “Bustang” routes connected Denver to three destinations: Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Glenwood Springs. The former two are Front Range cities and the largest in the state outside of the Denver metro area. The latter is a popular tourist destination and resort town on the other side of the Continental Divide. Initial ridership estimates of roughly 87,000 in its first year were outpaced by a figure exceeding 100,000. Weekday service was primarily aimed at I-25 commuters with jobs in Denver, but weekend buses were exceedingly popular among Colorado State University students in Fort Collins. Thirty-eight percent of Bustang’s cost was covered by its first year revenue alone. And it just kept growing.

Bustang bus (Source: Bustang)

Shortly after opening, communities all over Bustang’s service area were clamoring for increased service. Ridership growth didn’t slow down, with the second year recording 156,000 passengers as weekend schedules were made permanent. By 2018, a new service dubbed “Outrider” expanded Bustang to rural Colorado.

Bustang Outrider bus (Source: Bustang)

New cities were added to the network in rapid-fire fashion: Alamosa, Grand Junction, Durango, Trinidad. And so many more. By mid-2018, annual ridership was nearing 200,000. Even after driver shortages and a pandemic that decimated transit all over the country, ridership continued to rebound. Last year, it soared to 280,000. All the while, new destinations were added, new highway corridors served. To keep up with demand, the Colorado Department of Transportation is ramping up service on the original Bustang routes to 10 daily round trips on weekdays, adding an even greater degree of flexibility for those who rely on the bus — and those who have looked to it as a practical, affordable, climate-friendly alternative to driving.

A Model for Highway BRT

Colorado statewide connections map (Source: Bustang Outrider)

Minnesota’s statewide transportation leaves a lot to be desired. From Denver, I could make the 70-mile trip to Colorado Springs almost on a whim, with fixed-route, state-operated buses leaving several times a day. Rochester is 77 miles from downtown St. Paul, a straight shot down Highway 52. And yet, there is no comparable service — only pricey intercity coach buses and private airport shuttles that have to be scheduled in advance. Neither option provides the flexibility or reliability necessary to make transit an attractive option for those who don’t have to use it — in other words, choice riders.

Why not create our own Bustang?

The longer I’ve lived in Minnesota, the more I’ve come to appreciate how much it and my home state have in common. An almost identical population: 5.7 million and 5.8 million, respectively. The density patterns even look somewhat alike, with most residents concentrated in a single dominant metro area with several smaller cities anchored to it. In Colorado, these happen to fall along the Front Range north and south of Denver; here, they more or less encircle the Twin Cities.

Colorado and Minnesota population density maps (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The states are also roughly the same size, giving credence to the idea that Minnesota could model its transit off of the successes in Colorado. We’re already seeing the benefits of transit-oriented development in the Twin Cities, between increasing urban populations and consistently falling rents that trend against the national average. Why not spread the wealth to the rest of the state?

By following in Colorado’s footsteps, all of our cities can reap the rewards of large-scale transit investment. Outstate residents can more easily access jobs. Students can travel between home and their universities. Tourists can experience the stunning nature of northern Minnesota without having to rent a car and spend several hours staring out of a windshield. Or they can go to southern Minnesota for charming small towns and a growing number of rural bike trails. Patients can access the Mayo Clinic for regular treatment. Same with veterans vis-à-vis the VA Medical Center. Those who need or want to drive can continue to do so with less cumbersome traffic and less strain on our highways.

“Urban & Rural Population Trends” (Source: Minnesota GO)

In light of the recent legislative victories secured for transit, there is no better time to ask ourselves the simple, yet powerful question: “Why not here?” Colorado is far from perfect. Everything it’s done over the past three decades, from the creation of its first light rail line to the development of FasTracks, has been riddled with complications, compromises and setbacks. Frankly, that’s to be expected when delivering one of the most ambitious and longstanding projects in the entire United States.

This country is still learning how to embrace transit. But we can learn from one another, celebrate one another’s victories and apply these lessons to our own communities. Now is not the time to shy away from the challenge – not when we have this kind of momentum.

John Hickenlooper – State of the City, 2005 (Source: The Denver Post)

Listen to the words of John Hickenlooper, U.S. Senator and former mayor of Denver, who pushed the FasTracks proposal all the way back in 2004: “Far from resting on these accomplishments, we must be emboldened by them.”

Photos by author unless otherwise noted

Jesse Cook

About Jesse Cook

Pronouns: he/him/his

Third year aerospace engineering student (UofM) | Transit and housing advocate | Fan of trains and rockets