Management & Operations

Denver on Track with Light Rail, Highway Expansion

Posted on October 18, 2006 by Janna Starcic, Managing Editor

On the eve of opening its light rail service to the public in mid-November, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) doesn’t appear to be holding its breath. With its $1.67 billion Transportation Expansion (T-REX) project nearly complete — under budget and ahead of schedule — the agency is ready to enjoy the fruits of its labor.

“We’ve earned the trust of the region,” RTD General Manager/CEO, Cal Marsella says of the project. “We’ve built our rail lines on time and on budget, we haven’t had any of those horror stories you hear about where you blew the budget.”

With the success of past light rail projects, one of the most recent being the Southwest corridor in 2000, the RTD felt it had proved its concept to the public. “At the July 2000 opening, we predicted 8,400 riders a day, and we opened to about 12,000 riders,” Marsella says. “If you make the right investments strategically, the right corridors, and give [the public] a chance to experience it, they will embrace it.”

Six years later, the RTD is on the verge of another opening-day success with 36,000 riders projected for T-REX. This multi-modal project adds 19 miles of double-track light rail (Southeast Corridor) and expands 17 miles of highway.

The rail line, welded into one continuous piece, is made from steel recycled from the former Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos NFL football team. The Southeast line serving the T-REX corridor will connect to the RTD’s existing rail lines serving downtown Denver, various entertainment and sporting venues, including Invesco Field at Mile High, and Denver’s southwest suburbs.

Other project enhancements include 13 new stations, new and improved bridges and interchanges, additional traffic lanes and improved shoulders along interstates I-25 and I-225. “The idea of optimizing the people-carrying capacity in the existing corridor is really what we accomplished with T-REX,” Marsella says. “I think in the future, it’s a very good model for other cities to pursue.”

The only problem foreseen by Marsella for T-REX is having too many riders, and not enough parking to accommodate them — a major problem during the opening of the Southwest line. “We started out with 14 railcars, and six weeks after opening, we exercised an option for 12 more, because we just had to increase train size and frequency,” he says, adding that the RTD never caught up with the parking demand.

To avoid replication of those problems, the T-REX team recalibrated the ridership projections and put in provisions for more parking at stations. “Either we build parking, or we don’t have customers,” Marsella says. “The park-and-ride product works beautifully here.”

Effective partnering
The T-REX project, a combination of highway ($795 million) and light rail elements ($879 million), created several unique partnerships, including one between the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the RTD, with both playing a role in the financing and construction of the design-build project. Sixty-percent of the light rail portion of T-REX was funded by a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Full Funding Grant Agreement for $525 million, with the remainder paid for by the RTD and local matching funds.

Due to the dual nature of the mass transit/highway project, a unique partnership also developed between the FTA and the Federal Highway Administration, in which they agreed to “cooperatively work together to seamlessly implement U.S. Department of Transportation” procedures and principles in regard to the T-REX project.

Like the partnerships, the design-build aspect of the project is also distinctive. Instead of different contractors bidding on the separate highway and light rail portions, a single contractor group, Southeast Corridor Constructors (SECC) — a joint venture partnership between Parsons Transportation Group and Kiewit Construction — was selected for the entire design-build contract, which saved time and money when compared to traditional methods. The expedited timetable alone helped cut inflationary costs.

This strategy enabled design and construction to take place simultaneously, allowing more flexibility and creativity. In addition, the T-REX and SECC project teams worked within the same offices, which facilitated communication and project oversight.

“It was most effective and efficient to build it and to design it as one project,” says Parsons Vice President Pete Schmidt.

The T-REX corridor, one of the Denver region’s most heavily traveled, follows I-25, the only north-south interstate in the state, and I-225, which provides access to I-70, the major east-west interstate.

“The corridors were quite constricted, so during the widening of highway portion, temporary traffic was moved over to the right-of-way that would ultimately be the light rail line,” Schmidt says.

Minimizing the public’s inconvenience was a continuous goal during project construction. To help alleviate the burden on the commuting public, T-REX partners developed a marketing program called TransOptions that offered several transportation strategies: carpooling, vanpooling, public transit, alternative work schedules, walking and biking. CDOT and the RTD also donated $3 million to support transit pass and vanpool subsidies, Internet information and commuter outreach campaigns.

Fleet maintenance, storage
Several project elements not included in the design-build contract included the new light rail vehicles for the corridor, the fare collection system, parking structures and a new light rail maintenance facility.

Thirty-four light rail vehicles, manufactured by Siemens Transportation Systems, will operate on the new line. Each 80-foot vehicle seats 150 passengers and can be combined to make two-, three- or four-car trains. The new vehicles will be stored and maintained in the Elati Light Rail Maintenance Facility in the neighboring city of Englewood.

The RTD quickly outgrew its existing Mariposa maintenance facility, built for the Central Corridor line launched in 1994. It resorted to storing six rail vehicles at the end of the line each night. “We knew we had an additional 30 to 34 rail vehicles coming on line, so we knew we had to expand our maintenance facilities at that point,” says Lloyd Mack, RTD’s assistant general manager rail operations.

The new 125,000-square-foot Elati facility, completed in August 2004 at a cost of $40 million, features 10 canopied inspection bays, as well as vehicle washing, wheel truing and service/sanding bays. Its outdoor storage yard can accommodate up to 100 light rail vehicles. “We got a lot of input from our mechanics on what was important to them,” Mack says, adding, “How the pits should be arranged, mezzanines, trains, lighting.”

Present, future development
Looking to the future, development around T-REX’s 13 rail stations is expected to flourish. RTD’s light rail line along the Santa Fe corridor has already spawned a successful transit oriented development (TOD) in Englewood adjacent to the Englewood Civic Center station. The development, which features housing, retail establishments and City Hall, won many awards from various agencies, including the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency. “The tie-in with RTD has been two-fold,” says Gary Sears, city manager for the City of Englewood. “One is the light rail station, but this is also a bus hub, with over 300 buses coming through this site feeding the entire area.”

Looking beyond T-REX, the RTD developed a 12-year, $4.7 billion transportation initiative called FasTracks — the largest one-time build-out of mass transit in the country, according to the RTD. This initiative is expected to spur further concentrated transit-oriented growth and economic development with 50 new TOD centers in the suburbs surrounding the Mile High City.

Highlights from the initiative include 119 miles of new light rail and commuter rail; 18 miles of bus rapid transit service; 21,000 new parking spaces at rail and bus stations; and expanded bus service in all areas.

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