Monday, November 06, 2006

NW Denver Light Rail

A recent op-ed in the Rocky Mountain News calls for better tranist service for northwest Denver. Specifically it calls for better light rail (LRT) service as part of Fastracks. And what is the reason given for LRT as opposed to other choices?

While buses and other transit modes may seem to be viable options, one need only to experience the convenience, speed and connectivity of light-rail transit to know that the other modes are not equivalent.

This may seem compelling but think about it. What constitutes convenience? How do we know it's faster than other modes? And what is meant by connectivity?

Keep in mind that light rail costs 3 times as much up front to build as Bus Rapid Transit (assuming dedicated right-0f-way for both, et al.) Improving regular bus service would cost far less. So how is LRT more convenient to residents of northwest Denver than having 2 or even 3 BRT lines? Seems like the latter would be 2 to 3 times likely to be within walking distance for residents and would have 2 to 3 times as many businesses (jobs + shopping) within walking distance of transit. How is having less choices more convenient?

Speed is one form of convenience. As anyone who has used transit on a regular basis, a lot of time can be consumed by getting to the stop and waiting. It stands to reason that the closer to home or work the transit service is, the less time you spend doing that. I do not know of any studies showing that BRT service along the a route is actually slower than LRT. I do know of examples of where LRT is 15-20% slower than the bus service it replaced such as Minneapolis' Hiawatha line. And it stands to reason that if you simply beefed up bus service, that having more express buses where riders could ride directly or with only one or two stops downtown would be faster, especially for people further along the line in Arvada and Wheat Ridge.

What is meant by connectivity is ambigous. Could greater connectivity actually mean that somehow it's easier to step off an LRT train and wait on the platform for another LRT train than other choices? Is Mr. Copeland actually implying that LRT service would be more frequent than other forms? That's not true since if anything because of their lower costs, more frequent transit service from BRT or traditional buses is the probable outcome.

But what this doesn't address is the lack of flexibility light rail has in addressing the transit needs for the community as a whole. Fastraks is for the most part a downtown transit system. For those who work in downtown Denver, and there are no more jobs downtown than there were 20 years ago, it will work well. But what about people in NW Denver that are working in Golden, Broomfield, Boulder, Littelton or the Tech Center? Naturally no form of transit can perfectly account for everyone's travel needs. But by spending less money up front on light rail there are several options that would help better meet everyone's transit needs. For example, express buses on Sheridan could help connect riders to either the BRT or LRT lines that will serve the US 36 corridor (Boulder, Interlochen, etc). By forgoing the huge investment that LRT requires, it would be possible to have the BRT line run to Golden instead of ending in Wheat Ridge. This would not only offer more convenient, speedy transit service for Northwest residents that work there, but also open up more options for others in Wheat Ridge, Golden and other areas along the line. There are lots of other options that would be available by putting resources into express buses and even dedicated right-of-ways for BRT. People could have the option to travel by transit directly to their jobs in the Tech Center or the Federal Center instead of facing lengthy transfers downtown.

Having said this, why exactly is it again that Mr. Copeland believes that realigning the Gold Line to better server northwest Denver is the best option? Exactly how would that be more convenient, faster and give better connectivity for both those residents and, just as importanly, everyone in metro Denver?

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