Denver Finally Doesn't Have to Drive to the Airport (in 2016)

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(Denver, CO - Nathan Heffel, Transportation Nation)  With the wave of a yellow and orange flag, Mayor John Hickenlooper initiated the beginning of the end.  Denver's airport, which landed in the middle of the mountains 15 years ago, will no longer be only a long drive from downtown.

The flag wave was followed by a groundbreaking Thursday, as six earth movers began digging the path of a rail project, which will link Denver International Airport with downtown.

As we rode a shuttle bus for press and dignitaries out to the event, a fellow rider said, "I remember coming out here in the early 90’s for the groundbreaking ceremony for the airport.  I remember the tumbleweeds and the heat! It was so far from the city we wondered if the airport would even be viable.”

Fast forward 15 years: the airport, which many considered too big to sustain and too far from Denver to be practical (it's 24 miles from downtown), is now the ninth busiest airport in the world, with over 50 million passengers traveling through it a year.

Called the "$22 billion dollar economic engine of the Front Range" by Mayor Hickenlooper, the only way to get to DIA has been by car.   However, after years of planning, RTD is now building the $1 billion dollar East Corridor commuter rail line, which will link DIA to Denver’s Union Station, the hub of RTD’s FasTracks system. 

FasTracks is a voter-approved and funded $6.5 billion dollar light rail and commuter train system which, in time, will span hundreds of miles across the Front Range of Colorado.

“This is truly a great day,” said Hickenlooper. “We have a world-class downtown, we have a world class airport and now we’re going to connect them with a world class transit system.”

The 22-mile rail line, slated to open in early 2016, will be the first phase completed as part of the FasTracks Eagle P3 project which includes the construction of the Gold Line commuter service to Wheatridge, CO and the Northwest Rail Corridor which runs along interstate 25 to Westminster, CO.

Chris Martinez, RTD board member from District B, where most of the East Corridor line will travel, announced the commuter rails will “follow the original line of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, completed in 1870, which joined the Denver-Pacific Railroad and linked Denver to Cheyenne, WY and the Continental Railway,” securing Denver as a stronghold in the newly forming west of the 1800’s.  The groundbreaking was linked to more recent events as well, including the revitalization of downtown Denver in the early 80’s and the opening of DIA in February of 1995.    Aurora, CO Mayor Ed Tauer said, “It’s so important that we celebrate that Colorado attitude that says, 'We’re moving forward.'"

The line, when complete, will take 30 minutes to travel from Denver to DIA, and will run every 15 minutes.

The commuter line will leave Denver from Union Station, which is also undergoing a major construction and revitalization phase. The project, which is slated to be complete in 2013, will transform Union Station into FasTracks’ main hub, funneling all city, regional, and state transportation lines through the station.

The line will arrive at a new DIA commuter rail station, which is part of a larger redevelopment of the Jeppesen South Terminal. Designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the new South Terminal will join other famous Calatrava landmarks including the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Atrium of Brookfield Place in Toronto, Canada.

The South Terminal redevelopment project, expected to cost $650 million dollars, will include the East Line commuter rail station, a plaza to the airport terminal, as well as a large 500-room hotel and an ornate rail bridge over Pena Blvd.

According to Mayor Hickenlooper, The Eagle P3 Project, and specifically the construction of the East Corridor to DIA will create, “over 6,600 jobs,” and establish a sustainable economic boost for the entire state of Colorado.

An interesting memento from the days groundbreaking were commemorative ‘VIP tickets’ which were handed out to all dignitaries and guests. The ticket, if presented when the line opens in early 2016, will grant the ticket holder a free ride on the first VIP train to travel the completed line.

A unique concept, it should be interesting to see how many of the VIP tickets are actually still around 6 years from now.

Nathan Heffel is a producer at jazz89 KUVO Public Radio.