Denver Bets Light Rails Will Lure Car Commuters

Denver's light rail system

Denver's Regional Transportation District is adding 19 miles of light rail, more than doubling its existing 14-mile system. In 2004, voters approved a $4.7 billion bond measure that will expand the system even farther in coming years. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR

The West is one place where transportation planners can still try new things. The mass-transit infrastructure in the East is largely built, but out West is a mass-transit frontier.

Denver is embarking on a multibillion-dollar experiment to see whether light-rail trains will get people out of their cars. The Regional Transportation District — or RTD — recently more than doubled its miles of light-rail lines to 33. By 2016, there will be more than 150 miles of light-rail lines in the metro area. In 2004, voters passed a sales tax increase to pay the $4.7 billion price tag.

University of Colorado at Denver Urban Planning Professor Tom Clark says pollution and uncertainty about the future oil supply is prompting Denver leaders to act. He says they worry about being caught off-guard by events they can't control.

"Cities can't turn on a dime, and yet one could devise scenarios that could lead us to believe that there could emerge serious energy shortages," Clark says.

It likely would have been cheaper for Denver to expand its bus system rather than build new rail lines. But RTD Spokesman Scott Reed says that buses are less likely to motivate commuters to get out of their cars.

"There just is a certain stigma with some people about buses versus trains," Reed says.

So, Denver is placing a huge bet on trains, and early indications are that it may pay off. Reed says the light-rail lines the region opened up in recent years all exceeded passenger projections.

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