Moving Cities: Denver

Last spring, people from around the world came to Denver for the 4/20 celebration of the one year anniversary of Colorado’s decision to make marijuana use legal.

The 4/20 event was one that could not have been dreamed about 25 years prior. Yet there have been remarkable things happening in Denver. The formerly sleepy downtown that was Denver has come alive with new residents, recreation, and economic opportunity, topping more and more national quality of life rankings and becoming one of the most popular destinations for millennials. One of the key forces behind Denver’s transformation was the vision of a new transit system, a vision that has largely realized in an incredibly short period of time as far as modern transit developments go.

What was the vision? How did Denver come together to build the vision? How was it paid for? How has that vision shaped the Denver of today? And how will it shape Denver’s future?

In 1990, The City of Denver had 468,139 people, and 237,926 jobs. Downtown Denver was a sleepy place largely devoid of people in the evening. Only a handful of people lived downtown back then.

D&IM locomotive, engine number 819, engine type Electric; Western History & Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

The area surrounding the downtown was, like many cities, home to low and moderate income residents while growth was concentrated in the suburban towns surrounding Denver: the eastern suburb of Aurora became the third largest city and the western suburb of Lakewood became the fourth largest. The Denver metropolitan area was a decidedly auto-oriented place; there was no rail transit in Denver and its once proud Union Station was in disrepair, seeing only one long-distance train each way per day.

But Denver created a vision; note the active tense. Local leaders sought to make the Denver metropolitan area into something great. They decided to build a new airport and a new transit system. In the early 1990s, Denver took its first steps towards establishing a light rail transit system in the region, and in 1994 the Central Corridor, a light rail line through Denver’s Five Points district, opened without the aid of tax increases or federal funds. The same year, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) received permission from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to begin preliminary engineering and environmental impact statement for the Southwest Light Rail Project. In 1996, the FTA awarded $120 million which was augmented by $18 milling in Highway “flex” funds for the new light rail line. Construction began in 1997 and the line opened in July of 2000. Denver never looked back.

RTD FasTracks Progress Map

Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) started collaborating on a major freeway reconstruction and light rail extension, the T-Rex, a project as massive as the name suggests.

Denver embarked on an aggressive program of transit investment funded, in part, by a 0.4 percent sales tax levied in participating municipalities in 2004 . The investment program was called FasTracks and promised the creation of light rail and commuter rail transit.

The investment program also resulted in the (re)creation of the West Rail Line (which largely follows the path of the original Denver Lakewood & Golden Railway).

Today, Denver has a high performing light rail system and a renovated Union Station which is the heart of the system. The RTD is about to open a new commuter rail line to the airport and future investments as well.

Creation of new rail transit in Denver has required cooperation across municipalities in the region, including city and suburb and most importantly a shared vision. That doesn’t mean there weren’t disputes, there were. But despite the bumps along the way and the surging cost, the communities came together to design, build and, to a large extent, fund a new transit system for the region.

Based on hard facts, but just as importantly, the look and feel of the city and region, the investment has transformed the region into one unlike any other in the nation. It is a cosmopolitan urban center set in amidst one of the greatest outdoor recreation areas in the country. Downtown is now a center of vibrant residential, commercial and entertainment activity. The transit system is a unifying force, linking people of different incomes, ethnicities, races and neighborhoods.


Denver’s transformation is exemplified in a personal anecdote—a very close friend from college moved to Downtown Denver and lives here…



… but takes light rail to his suburban job here.

Denver is a city that has taken its destiny in its own hands, and its transit investment is one of its key ingredients to success.

Business and civic leaders were not afraid of dreaming big for Denver, and of wanting the City to have the tools to compete with pairs not only in the U.S., but also across the world, envisioning a global future.

Union Station Denver
Union Station in Denver, via Heidi Dawn Medina


Richard VoithRichard Voith is a President and Principal at Econsult Solutions, and is the current Chair of the Delware Valley Chapter of the Counselors of Real Estate. He is a well-known expert in transportation and applied economics. He is also a board member of PENTRANS and Philadelphia Youth Basketball.

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