Destination 2017: Denver

Denver’s Union Station is a stately presence in lower downtown, bustling with travelers pulling suitcases beneath massive historic light fixtures and local workers and entrepreneurs enjoying quinoa salads on the plaza. The transit hub feels like the landmark rail stations of Europe, but it wasn’t always this way. Once dingy and dark, stranded far from the business of downtown, Union Station just a few years ago was a place to catch a bus or train or disembark and then escape as quickly as possible—except for the homeless, who used its hard wooden benches as nap sites.

The transformation is the result of Union Station’s role as the centerpiece of FasTracks, a $5.5 billion transit initiative begun in 2006 and continuing today. FasTracks paid for the construction of 122 miles of rail line connecting downtown Denver to the surrounding suburbs and the Denver International Airport (DIA). Formerly a traditional bus depot and an Amtrak stop, this hub now houses light rail, rapid bus transit and commuter rail under one gorgeous roof. And as of January 2017, this station alone counts average daily traffic of more than 28,000 fares in a metro area of 2.9 million people, not bad for a system that’s still under construction. Jessica LaRusso, managing editor of Denver’s city magazine, 5280, commutes daily via the rail system, saving money, time and hassle. She and her husband have traded two older cars for one upgraded four-wheel-drive vehicle that makes weekend trips to the mountains a breeze. “Instead of starting my day with road rage, I listen to my favorite podcasts,” says LaRusso, who is also saving money on downtown parking fees. “My commute is now one of my favorite times of the day. I think of it as real ‘me time.’”

In terms of economic development, FasTracks, which is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the nation, is really picking up speed. The city estimates a $3.8 billion economic impact from the $500 million redevelopment of Union Station and the surrounding 20 acres. What was once home to a nest of old rail lines and dilapidated buildings is today brimming with high-rise developments and destination dining. Whole Foods opened this summer. And it’s just in the nick of time. “As a region we have outpaced almost every other region in the country in terms of growth,” says Brad Calvert, regional planning and development director for the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG). “We are providing mobility as this growth is happening.”

A combination of good luck, bad luck and a lot of collaboration brought Denver to this point. FasTracks hasn’t solved all of the Mile-High City’s transportation issues—traffic is still a hassle, mass transit within the urban core needs attention and some suburbs still wait for rail service. But the magnitude of the project and the process of achieving it have forever changed Denver, while providing cities across the country with a compelling development model.

“I’m surprised it’s done as well as it has,” says Bruce Janson, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Denver, who sat in on some of those early community meetings. “I moved here in 1990 and Denver really felt like a car-centric city. All you heard was, ‘This is the West; people are really into driving here, and they’re not going to get out of their cars.’ Ultimately, what we saw was just the opposite.”

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