Light Rail Initiative Offers Chance to Reduce Congestion

by Monica Piergrossi, Field Organizer, Colorado Environmental Coalition

Do you feel that it is about time we do something about traffic congestion and air pollution, build a comprehensive and convenient light rail and rapid transit system for the whole Denver Metro Area, manage growth and discourage sprawl by getting serious about alternative transportation and prevent the Denver-area from becoming another L.A.?

If you feel that it's about time we did all of this and you live in the six-county RTD district, you can do something about it. On November 4 you will have the opportunity to vote for the Guide the Ride Transit Initiative, and you can volunteer in the campaign to pass the ballot initiative, which is being run by a diverse coalition called Transit '97.

Two years ago, light rail service was inaugurated in the Denver area with a 5.3-mile line through the downtown. Since then hundreds of thousands of people have ridden it to work, school or a ball game. Carrying about 15,000 passengers a day, it has proven more popular than expected. Despite being expanded twice, the Park-n-Ride at the end of the line (Broadway and I-25) fills up by 7:30 a.m.

The overwhelming public response has been, "Let's build more." As a result, RTD developed the Guide the Ride plan to build a comprehensive system of transit, including light rail, commuter rail (which uses diesel rather than electric power for the longer distances) and possibly express bus lanes covering the whole metro area, as well as a network of smaller neighborhood buses.

The plan includes up to 125 miles of new rapid transit service in seven corridors. Small buses would circulate in 40 communities. Bus service would increase by 32 percent, with more suburb-to-suburb links. All of this would be funded by 0.4% cent sales tax increase, or four cents on a $10 purchase. The entire structure would be built by the year 2015.

Leaders of the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter have worked with the Sustainable Transportation Coalition, Colorado Environmental Coalition, CoPIRG, metro area mayors and business groups to put the initiative on the ballot and form Transit '97. The Guide the Ride Initiative has an incredible breadth of support, including the League of Women Voters and the American Lung Association, the Metro Mayors Caucus, representing 32 mayors in the metro area, and business groups that include most metro-area Chambers of Commerce.

Why this unusually diverse coalition? The need for action is clear. Traffic congestion is increasing substantially. According to the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the number of congested freeway miles tripled between 1990 and 1995. The metro area is projected to add 800,000 people in the next 25 years, the equivalent of another Denver and Aurora combined.

Rail transit is an essential part of the solution. Transportation agencies spent two years studying three of the metro area's most congested corridors. Their findings were reviewed by hundreds of citizens and policy-makers, who made recommendations based on cost-effectiveness and community and environmental impact. In all three corridors, the recommendations are for rail transit for the following reasons:

Rail transit is cost-effective. In the south Interstate 25 corridor, for instance, it would take 10 additional lanes, or 16 lanes total, to handle all of the traffic anticipated within 25 years. This would cost over $1 billion. Light rail will cost less than half of that.
Once they're built, rail transit and bus lanes can easily handle increased demand simply by adding more trains or buses. In fact, light rail can carry as many people as 3-5 freeway lanes in each direction.
Rail lines and express bus lanes provide rapid transit. For major employment centers like the Denver Tech Center, DIA and the Federal Center in Lakewood, light rail and commuter rail investments are expected to offer significant travel time savings over the automobile. For example, a trip from Lincoln Avenue and I-25 to downtown during rush hour will take 30 minutes less on light rail than by driving. Time savings like this will help RTD capture 36% of the commuter trips to downtown and provide a quick way to get to a ball game or show.
Rail transit contributes to cleaner air and has less impact on neighborhoods. The light rail and other rapid transit in the Guide the Ride plan will reduce vehicle travel by more than 400,000 miles a day, eliminating more than 6 tons of air pollution everyday. On the other hand, meeting increasing travel needs simply by widening freeways would not only increase air pollution but be terribly destructive to neighborhoods.
Rapid transit provides more options for more people. Commuters can relax and read the paper on the way to work instead of fighting traffic; getting to the airport will be quick and inexpensive; and, because, one-third of our population doesn't drive, this initiative will provide greater mobility.


Consider the alternative if we do nothing. In less than 20 years, the time we spend stuck in traffic will triple. Average rush hour speeds will drop by one-third to 22 miles an hour and vehicle pollution contributing to the Brown Cloud will increase by 44%.


What You Can Do: If you think it's about time someone did something about air pollution, traffic congestion and sprawl, you're right. And that "someone" is each of us. You can make a difference by joining the campaign, talking to your friends and colleagues about the initiative, and by voting. Volunteer today by contacting Brian Mohr at the Sierra Club office in Boulder at (303) 449-5595 or Monica Piergrossi at the Colorado Environmental Coalition at (303) 837-1198 or monica@cecenviro.org.