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Denver rail saga parallels S.L.'s

Colorado capital forges ahead a line at a time

DENVER — A transit board split over light rail; a contentious public debate; a failed ballot measure followed by a successful one; strong opposition that fades with time.

Sound familiar? It should.

The above could apply to the Salt Lake Valley and its struggles to build — and accept— light-rail mass transit over the past decade.

But Denver has gone through it all, too. And much like the Utah Transit Authority, Denver's Regional Transportation District is forging ahead, one project at a time, with plans to fully link Denver and its suburbs by rail transit.

"Our biggest complaint is there is not enough parking for everyone who wants to ride this thing," said Englewood Mayor Tom Burns, whose city is perched on the 8.7-mile Southwest Corridor extension the RTD opened last July.

"The Southwest Corridor has been so successful in the few months it's been open," he said. And that's despite local radio pundits who predicted the line would "be an embarrassment and that all who supported it would be embarrassed."

The Colorado capital's initial 5.3-mile line, the Central Corridor, opened in 1994, two years after Salt Lake County voters defeated a proposed sales tax increase to pay for Utah's first light-rail system and I-15 reconstruction. Construction of Denver's original, downtown line was paid for with local money, without assistance from the federal government.

A few years later, the boards of both UTA and RTD were embroiled in wars about whether light rail, which opponents decried as an outdated and inefficient mode of transportation, should be pursued as a priority.

Jon Caldara was one of the elected RTD board representatives who was steadfast in his opposition to light rail. Three years after his departure from the board, he still is.

"The West, including Salt Lake, needs light rail like a cancer victim needs a cigarette," said Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank.

"If you live on the light-rail line and work on the light-rail line, congratulations, you're a winner. But so little of our commuting habits can be mimicked by light rail."

In Utah, the light-rail fight eventually took a toll, too, but among the proponents. UTA General Manager John Pingree was fired in May of 1997, in part because of his unyielding support for light rail.

In Denver that fall, with the RTD board battle still raging, area voters were asked to increase the transit district's sales tax from six-tenths of a cent per dollar to a full penny. Caldara led the opposition to the tax increase. By a 58-42 percent margin, Denver voters said 'no.'

"In the four years I was on the board, we did not build one inch of light rail and that's tough to do because the political pressure is outrageous," Caldara said. "People don't want light rail for themselves, they want it for the guy in front of them."

Even without a tax increase in Utah, UTA somehow managed to buy the right of way and, with 80 percent federal funding, build the 15-mile north-south TRAX line that opened in December of 1999.

A month before that, Denver-area voters approved RTD's follow-up attempt to expand light rail. A 19-mile extension to the southeast will be built by 2008 as part of a $2.3 billion bond measure, which includes reconstruction of I-25.

In the meantime, RTD secured 80 percent federal funding and built the Southwest Corridor spur off its original downtown line. The $178 million line to Englewood and Littleton immediately exceeded ridership projections by 30 percent and is now 58 percent above expectations with average weekday ridership of 13,300.

Englewood is the poster child for transit-oriented development along the new route. The city initiated efforts to demolish and replace the 1.3 million-square-foot Cinderella City mall, which was all the rage when it was built in 1968 but had long since outlived its popularity.

The mall has been replaced by a new City Hall and civic center, a museum, 438 units of housing, a Wal-Mart and 350,000 square feet of new retail space. A 20,000-square-foot office complex is on the way.

"I think the citizens got to the point where they said, 'Do something . . . we've got a dead mall over here!' " Burns said. "We didn't have to go in and invade neighborhoods" to revitalize the area.

The Englewood light-rail station features seven bus bays, bicycle stands, a circular drop-off and plenty of benches.

"We have people in the neighborhood who walk to light rail all the time and it's working very well," Burns said. "The people who live here have options. They don't have to drive a car all day and can elect to live here and go downtown or south to Littleton on light rail."

RTD's weekday ridership on its 14 miles of track hovers at about 32,000 boardings a day. UTA's TRAX carries about 19,000 per day.

RTD broke ground two weeks ago on a 1.8-mile Central Platte Valley extension past Denver's sports stadiums, including the Pepsi Center, Coors Field and the Denver Broncos' new home, now under construction. And there is talk of commuter rail extensions east to Denver International Airport and north to Boulder.

UTA hopes to have its 2.5-mile University TRAX extension completed in time for the 2002 Winter Games next February. A quarter-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in November, and hoped-for assistance from the Utah Legislature to buy right-of-way for commuter rail and other uses, have the agency gearing up for years of rail expansion projects.

Denver, too, is hoping to accomplish the nearly $3 billion in rail projects it sought to complete with its failed 1997 referendum. The success of the Southwest Corridor has stirred discussions of once again asking Denver-area voters to approve an increase in the sales tax for transit.

"We're going to be looking at how we can build up the remaining corridors because the congestion and traffic problems here are just growing and growing," said RTD spokesman Scott Reed. "We just keep hearing more and more that we need to be doing something, so we are looking at what can be done to expand the system over time."

That means UTA and RTD will be competing for some of the same federal construction money, and it is unclear if President Bush's Republican administration will be as liberal in its distribution of transit funds as the Clinton administration was.

But UTA General Manager John Inglish said he doesn't see Denver as the competition. Both agencies, along with others, have pushed for increased federal spending on public transit.

"We all think there is enough money to do the good projects, and we support one another in moving our projects forward because we know that one system's success leads to another system's opportunity," said Inglish, who once interviewed for the director's job at RTD.

"They've always had a lot more money than we've had. They've had an excellent bus system because they've had a well-funded bus system. I'm surprised they've had the battles they've had on extending transit."

Inglish observed that UTA has accomplished a great deal in part because of a positive working relationship with the Wasatch Front Regional Council. RTD, he said, has not always had such a productive association with its local metropolitan planning organization.