When Denver voters approved a new sales tax increase in 2004 of 0.4% to finance a new transit network, hopes were high for a modern metropolis connected by a multimodal network that would ease congestion and accommodate future growth. The project was called FasTracks and was expected to not only make Denver the most connected city in the western hemisphere but also make it FAST.

However, the relative low density of the region — unlike big cities like New York and Boston — makes it very hard for a transit network to pay off easily.

The project has faced dramatic cost increase, lower-than-expected ridership and an extended completion date. We visited Denver to explore the FasTracks story and find out what lessons cities around the world can learn from it.

FasTracks: The Vision

Like many other big cities around the world, population growth is pushing the demand for more convenient transit networks that connect people.

Denver is no different, with a population that is expected to grow from 2.8 million to 4.2 million by 2035, and the city had no choice but to invest in a transportation infrastructure that can accommodate this growth, not only in the City of Denver, but in the entire metropolitan region.FasTracks at a glance

FasTracks aims to add 122 miles of light and commuter rails to the existing network,  57 new stations, 21,000 new parking spots, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network and seamless connections to pedestrians and bike lanes around the network.

The project’s advocates initially justified a massive $4.7 billion budget, to be financed by taxpayers, for the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) concept — an urban planning philosophy that relies on creating vibrant walkable, mixed-use districts around transit stations that would stimulate the region’s economy.

FasTracks: The Case

FasTracks is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the United States and the world. Unlike the typical light transit network within cities that characterized much of the infrastructure projects in previous decades, the network is covering an entire region formed of eight counties: Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and Weld.

Besides improving transportation choices for people in the region, the project aims to establish a proactive smart growth plan that balances between urban growth and sustainability.

The majority of the project was planned to be delivered in 2017; however (due to the financial crisis of 2008, rising costs of construction and low revenues), it will be extended to 2018, with some stations and extensions expected to take until 2044 to be delivered!

Financially, it’s not much better. According to the final available report by the Regional Transportation District (RTD), The project’s budget is expected to cross the $5.5 billion mark, almost 25% more than the $4.7 billion originally planned.

Another reason for FasTracks to become a case study is that it was implemented via a strong bottom-up, informal regional collaboration through networks of businesses and civil society. New developments of mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods are mushrooming around the network, providing an opportunity to study the impact of TOD.

Transit in Denver

Creating a transit network in Denver is a very challenging proposition for the city. First of all, the region is not flat, instead surrounded by mountains and rocky lands that increase the cost of infrastructure significantly for light rail.

In addition, after decades of uncontrolled growth in the post-World War II years, like many American cities, the region was mainly characterized by high suburbanization and urban sprawl.

Denver itself has lost its percentage of population share in the region from 75% in the 50s to around 23% today, while the surrounding counties witnessed staggering growth. Douglas County, for example, grew from 3000 residents in the 50s to 336,000 (As of Jan 2017).

Urban Sprawl Denver

It’s worth noting that the city used to have a street car network but, like many other cities, it was abandoned by the 1950s with the assumption that everyone would eventually own a car. Hence, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy where more cars fueled more suburbanization.

A predecessor of FasTracks was proposed in 1997 under the name “Guide the Ride,” which was also planned to be financed by a 0.4% tax increase. Voters rejected the proposal because of the vague design and weak enthusiasm for transit concept, in addition to the bad reputation the RTD had gained as a dysfunctional organization back then.

While FasTracks had its wide support network, it also had a strong “No” camp. In fact, a paper published in 2003 — a few months before the vote by the Independence Institute’s Center for the American Dream — had predicted that there was a wide underestimation of cost.

“Rail’s higher operating costs, the cost of accelerating construction, higher interest rates, the future vision plan, and the need for periodic reconstruction are not mentioned in the FasTracks ballot question. Between these costs, it is likely that the long-term costs of FasTracks would be billions more than advertised by FasTracks supporters,” wrote Randal O’Tool (Center for the American Dream).

The RTD has always used the 2008 financial crisis as an “out of hands” circumstance that caused the delay; however, overall, delays and budget increases of big infrastructure projects are not so uncommon in a rapidly changing and connected world.

“All great infrastructure projects endured challenges during their build-outs. The leaders that envisioned great national projects like the Transcontinental Railroad and the Interstate Highway System — and great regional projects like Denver International Airport, the T-REX project and Coors Field — were not deterred by naysayers,” said Phil Washington, general manager of the Regional Transportation District, in a Denver Post column.

Bottom-Up Collaboration

What’s remarkable about the FasTracks initiative is the level of bottom-up, regional collaboration that it has received, which is quite unique for a project of its size.

The period after World War II in the United States witnessed massive top-down infrastructure projects like the Interstate Highway System and the Washington Metro. In most cases, those projects were planned or pushed at the federal level.

This has changed over the years to give more power to local cities, counties and municipalities to implement their own initiatives via formal legal organizations and districts. The downside of this decentralization was manifested toward the end of the 20th century, when conflict and disputes over jurisdictional boundaries were ubiquitous.

In one famous case, when the City of Denver tried to annex part of Greenwood Village, its mayor, Harold Patton, was quoted: “We will fight Denver in all ways possible like Poland did when Hitler decided he needed more land… we will fight until they are as bloody as a bull’s hock!”

This was certainly a peculiar choice of words that showed to what extent competition among cities had reached.

By the 90s, according to a paper published by the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver, this mindset started to change. Bottom-up approaches to regionalism and urbanization were emerging as fresh models to get things done.

“New informal models of regional collaboration could be developed, which drew people and communities together around “projects,” which in turn could be demonstrated to have a regional impact,” according to the paper that was co-written by Professor Andrew Goetz, with whom we met in Denver.

Learning from the failure of “Guide the Ride,” bottom-up collaboration has been a strong feature of the planning of FasTracks.

This time, the RTD learned its lesson well. Hundreds of public meetings were conducted and volunteers collected thousands of signatures, surveys and polls. The RTD also hired an advertising agency to promote the project to the public under its new name.

The process included strong support from local bottom-up organizations in Denver, such as the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce (representing 3,000 businesses) that was an early advocate of the project. Other networks were strong advocates of the project, including the Metro Mayors Caucus (formed in the 1990s to provide a consensus-based platform for 41 mayors in the region) and the Alliance for Regional Stewardship.

Transit Oriented Development

Since FasTracks was proposed, the RTD and the “Yes” camp positioned the plan as the Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

The TOD concept refers to the creation of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods around the Fastracks stations, where people are expected to use less cars, due to their proximity to transit, in addition to shopping and entertainment areas within walking distance.

These types of development represent a new wave of urban planning, contrary to the car-dominated cities that characterized Denver and most American cities during the post-WWII era of uncontrolled growth. A prime example of the effect of TOD can be seen in Denver’s oldest neighborhood, LoDo (Lower Dowtown), surrounding Union Station, as the central connecting point of FasTracks in Downtown Denver.

The historic building of Union Station — once at risk of being demolished — has gone through a $200 million remodeling project that converted the building into a boutique hotel and a mix of trendy restaurants and retail stores while maintaining the identity of the terminal.

Fastracks: Interior of Denver Union Station

An interior view of the Great Hall at Denver Union Station. Amy Aletheia Cahill

The station itself connects the RTD light rails, commuter rails, Amtrak and regional buses, in addition to bicycles and pedestrian infrastructure around the area. To complement the project, 16th Street (around the station) was closed and converted into a pedestrian-friendly open mall, connecting the nearby Civic Center area via Free MetroRide.

Downtown Denver - 16th Street Mall

Downtown Denver – 16th Street Mall. Jack Gray Photography

TOD has contributed to increasing the average population density, within a half mile of transit stations, to 6 times the region average. In addition, household density near transit stations today is 9 times greater than the regional average.

On the other hand, not everything is so rosy when it comes to TOD. While it’s true that it increases property values in the walkable areas around stations, this usually benefits landlords who find enough incentives to increase rent. This, in turn, decreases the affordability of the area and creates displacement of low-income groups; in other words, TOD is a big driver of gentrification.

To partially offset this problem, the Denver TOD Fund was launched in 2010 with $25 million to preserve affordable housing near transit stations by buying land before transit service arrives. The fund is a collaborative effort by The Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), Enterprise Community Partners, the City and County of Denver, and several other investors.

It aims to support the preservation of over 1000 affordable housing units in the surrounding neighborhoods of the stations.

Legislative Support

FasTracks is not only an RTD project characterized by bottom-up collaboration. There has been a very strong push at the state and city levels for this project to see light and has even involved a few changes in several Senate bills.

For example, the Colorado Senate allowed the entire tax increase by replacing Senate Bill 1 (SB1) with a new bill (SB 167) that gave RTD the power to propose a sales tax increase whenever it wanted. The former allowed this proposal one time only. In addition, SB 182 permitted the RTD to purchase a property at half its market price in case the owners retained the other half.

After the financial crisis, FasTracks found itself $2 billion short of budget; the idea of an additional tax increase was proposed but later rejected.

This time, the solution was in the private market via PPP (Public Private Partnership). With the Federal Transit Administration approval, a new PPP was launched to finance 3 out of the 6 FasTracks corridors under the name Eagle P3. RTD was able to partner with private companies to design, build, operate, maintain and finance different corridors within FasTracks, providing a $2 billion injection into the project.

PPP mechanisms also allowed private contractors, including Kiewit Infrastructure Co., Graham Contracting LTD, Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. and Harmon Contractors Inc. (GBBH), to submit and get approval for their proposals to build 2 of the other corridors.

The story of FasTracks raises the question of the feasibility of massive infrastructure projects in an era characterized by the unpredictability and inefficiency of the public sector to get things done alone. As we have seen, Denver has tried a mix of solutions to allow this project to reach the finish line, ranging from informal networks to tax increases to Public Private Partnership.

While we might not be able to discover the complete answer before 2044, we’ll most likely know in the coming years whether the huge investment in FasTracks will pay off or not.

*Never miss a story like this - subscribe to our weekly highlights and stay up-to-date