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Denver’s big public transit plans

Marketplace Staff Oct 30, 2009

Denver’s big public transit plans

Marketplace Staff Oct 30, 2009


STEVE CHIOTAKIS: The Denver area transit system is about to get much bigger. Within the next decade, officials there want to add 140 miles of track 90 new commuter stations. That quadruples what’s there now. The Mile High City’s ambitious transit blueprint is being hailed by the Obama administration as a national model. But is it all enough to get people out of their cars?

Andrea Bernstein from station WNYC went to Denver to find out.

Andrea Bernstein: Union Station is a beautifully preserved marble building in downtown Denver. But if you walk around to the back, you’ll see a barren field, with acres and acres of weeds.

Philip Washington, the head of the transit system, sees the future.

Philip Washington: All of this, all the way back to those buildings. This is where eight commuter rail lines will come into. This is also where three light rail lines will come into.

Right now, 6,000 passengers a day come through Union Station. But eight years from now, planners expect as many as 100,000 daily riders. Is that possible? Denver’s transit system is a fledgling chick. Light rail started only in the 1990s, with one straight line that ran from downtown to the southern suburbs.

Tom Clark: Well, the first line — was called the southwest line — was really an experiment.

Tom Clark is with the Chamber of Commerce. He says the challenge for the Denver transit system is to appeal to Coloradans’ inner environmentalist. That means they have to overcome their inner libertarian.

Clark: The question of whether or not all these cowboys could get out of their pick-ups, take their guns out of their gun racks and put their German shepherd in a kennel and ride transit.

For years, that wasn’t an option. If you’ve never been to Denver, it actually sits on a prairie, just east of the Rocky Mountains. The city could grow in every direction and it did. Built on a series of ring roads, the Denver area is now mostly suburban sprawl — 2.7 million people spread across an area the size of the state of Delaware.

Brandy Hager lives in Highlands Ranch, one of the suburbs near the end of the rail line. In August, she got a new job with an IT company downtown, close to Union Station. So she made the short drive from her house to her suburban train station and boarded the light rail. At first, she didn’t know what to expect.

Brandy Hager: Like myself, I used to enjoy driving and now that I have actually done it and realized how convenient and how nice it is, and I don’t have to worry about watching the road or anything I can just sit and listen to my iPod and relax.

As I talk to Hager, I wonder what it is she liked about driving. She realizes…

Hager: Nothing.

That fear of the unknown is the enemy of transit planners, says Eric Johnson. He’s a professor at Columbia University’s business school and studies how consumers make decisions.

Eric Johnson: This is a great challenge, because what you are trying to is get people away from the status quo. They’ve not only been driving, but they’ve been driving for a very long time.

The American Public Transit Association says taking transit can save households about $9,000 a year, assuming a two-car family can give up one car. But Johnson says the trick is to make clear that the benefits outweigh what he calls the “switching costs,” which don’t always have to do with money.

If I’ve always driven, I don’t have to think about when to leave, I just leave. If I switch to mass transit, I have to actually figure out what the schedule is and that’s a cost that’s keeping people perhaps from changing.

Steve Krisman: At first it’s a bit of a lifestyle change.

Steve Krisman works in public relations for the University of Colorado. He lives, as he puts it “way out in the suburbs,” a 20-minute drive from the closest rail stop. Last spring, he and his wife sat down and thought about ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Krisman: Just thought I would give this a try. It does take overall more time, but on the other side of it, I know exactly how long it’s going to take to get from my house to my office versus you never know when there’s traffic.

There were a record 106 million boardings on Denver transit last year. Still, there’s an awful lot of persuading to be done.

Kelly Holcomb was parking her Subaru just outside Union Station, which happens to be a few blocks from her job as a software tester. Holcomb’s employer gives her a free transit pass. It’s called an Eco Pass. But she has to get her kids to school.

Kelly Holcomb: Mostly sort of being lazy through and sleeping in.

Bernstein: So you have free transit but you still drove?

Holcomb: Yeah. I know, pretty funny.

Even if it’s hard to get people to stop driving to work, it’s turned out to be surprisingly easy to get them to take the train to the city’s sporting venues, all of which have a train stop.

Melissa Willey was with her husband and four children in a train car full of hockey fans wearing red-and-blue Colorado Avalanche jerseys

Melissa Willey: We don’t have a car big enough for all of us.

Bernstein: That’s a good reason.

Willey: And I plan on having a few cocktails, train, DUI way cheaper.

Yeah, well, local officials say. Whatever it takes to get people on the train.

From Denver, I’m Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace Money.

Overheard voice on train: This is the Union Station, our final destination.

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