Denver business backed RTD's FasTracks, DIA train. So what's next for transportation?

by Tom Clark

Tom recently sat down with Denver Business Journal’s Cathy Proctor on what’s next for Metro Denver transportation. With the A-Line opening on Friday, FasTracks will pass a huge milestone. Read on for Tom’s prediction of transportation projects: 

In 2004, the Denver-area business community threw its support — and money — behind FasTracks, RTD's construction project to build a network of passenger rail lines throughout the metro area.

Businesses poured $3.6 million into the 2004 “FasTracks Yes!” campaign and voters approved a new 0.4 percent sales tax, or 4 pennies for every $10 spent, to help pay for 122 miles of new passenger rail lines throughout metro Denver, plus 18 miles of bus rapid transit infrastructure, and 21,000 new parking spaces at rail and bus stations. 

Friday, the University of Colorado A line between Denver Union Station and Denver International Airport will start operations. It’s the first leg of the larger $2.2 billion “Eagle” project to build rail lines from downtown to DIA and the suburbs of Westminster, Arvada and Wheat Ridge.

The first line built under the FasTracks project — the West light rail line between Denver Union Station and Golden — opened in May 2013. 

To date, RTD has about $5.5 billion worth of FasTracks projects either completed, under construction or under contract. An additional $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion worth of work is needed to complete the vision, according to RTD officials. 

So when it comes to transportation, what’s next for Denver’s business community? 

What's next are transportation projects big and small, says to Tom Clark, the CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and executive vice president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s how do we deal with the first mile and the last mile,” Clark said, referring to the question of getting people from their homes or businesses to Denver’s growing transit network. 

“Uber and Lyft are already way down the road on defining how the connections will occur. And there are a number of places around the country that are using apps that increase people’s ability and reliability to get on buses,” he said. 

Flexibility in the system is expected to become more important, such as allowing a bicycle commuter to ride their bike to work then take the bus or train home in case the weather turns bad, Clark said.

“Or if I’m an employer, I could add dollars to RTD's EcoPass to cover the ‘first mile/last mile’ costs,” he said. 

“It eliminates the just-in-time car, that second car in many households that people own just in case they need them.” 

On a larger scale, Clark is hope technology also will help smooth the routine traffic jams along Interstate 70 into and out of the mountains every week. 

Colorado leaders often tout the state’s “quality of life” and access to recreation options as one of the state’s selling points. But traffic jams make it harder for people to actually take advantage of those activities. 

And even though the Colorado Department of Transportation has opened up a new, tolled Mountain Express Lane on weekends for eastbound travelers along I-70, that’s not going to be enough in the long run, Clark said. 

The toll lanes are "a 10- to 12-year Band-Aid,” he said.

“We have a 10-year window to use technology to get people up to the mountains and back, while allowing them to retain their own autonomous vehicle to use when they get to the top of the mountain,” he said. “The business community is looking at the technology and trying to move it along." 

The business community isn’t alone in looking to embed technology into Colorado’s traffic system.

CDOT in October announced it would invest about $20 million in a series of projects dubbed RoadX, under which the agency aims to team the public sector and private companies to deploy “comprehensive technology solutions” over the next 10 years can help make Colorado’s roads “crash-free, injury free, delay-free.” 

One of the problems with traffic jams is the “accordion syndrome,” in which one person steps on the brakes, and so does the person behind them and further back — eventually slowing down the entire string of cars.

“You have to have a technological way to have those cars drive closer together, and allocate asphalt to a group of cars tied together by Wifi into a train,” Clark said. 

“You could have maybe 100 cars set out with the cars within feet of one another, not yards or football fields, and that allows you to move all those cars like they’re one car, like a train,” he said. 

Ultimately, more cars could be packed onto an existing highway, and drivers could be assured of a reliable, “reasonable” amount of travel time, Clark said. 

Such a system could also incorporate flexibility, allowing the drivers to “detach” from the high-tech vehicle train at certain points and head for their individual destinations, he said. 

“We think that’s what’s next in Colorado,” Clark said.

Tom Clark

Former CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development Council

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