Hancock Makes Room for Colfax BRT in 2016 Budget

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With Bus Rapid Transit, bus ridership will be much higher on Colfax than if Denver doesn’t change the street. Image: DPW

Denver has studied bus rapid transit (BRT) on East Colfax Avenue for a long time, and now it looks like the city is ready to take concrete steps to make it happen. Mayor Michael Hancock’s budget sets aside $1.2 million to design the BRT route, which would connect downtown Denver with Aurora over a nine-mile span.

Colfax is Denver’s busiest bus corridor, with 22,000 riders every weekday, according to a corridor study. But the street itself doesn’t cater to buses, or the people riding them. Instead it’s one of the city’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians, and buses carrying dozens of people have to maneuver sluggishly around the single-occupancy vehicles Colfax was built for.

Colfax BRT would change that aggravating experience. Buses would have their own lane in each direction during morning and afternoon rush hour, making the ride quicker by 10 to 11 minutes, according to projections. Riders would only wait five minutes between bus arrivals, and smooth, quick, all-door boarding will replace the standard, clunky process. With “transit signal priority,” lights will stay green longer if a bus is approaching, keeping passengers moving. Distinct bus stations will replace bus stops, and the street is supposed to get safer for walking and biking — though the plan hasn’t given us any specifics.

All of these changes amount to a better rider experience, and will lead people to choose the bus instead of their car.

With BRT, Colfax will be able to accommodate the city’s growth without getting overrun by trafficOver the next 20 years, the nine-mile stretch is projected to see a 25 percent increase in individual trips, 67 percent more jobs, and a 25 percent growth in population. Transit can move more people using less space than car lanes, but only if the city sets it up to be useful. Planners project that with BRT, by 2035 bus ridership on Colfax would double compared to today, and would be 65 percent higher than with no BRT.

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The BRT will likely stretch from Auraria to the Anchutz Medica Campus in Aurora. Image: DPW

Some people think a streetcar would do better on Colfax, but everything else being equal, buses work about just as well as streetcars, writes transit expert Jarrett Walker:

Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement. If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, and make no other improvements, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before. This makes streetcars quite different from most of the other transit investments being discussed today.

Where a streetcar is faster or more reliable than the bus route it replaced, this is because other improvements were made at the same time — improvements that could just as well have been made for the bus route. These improvements may have been politically packaged as part of the streetcar project, but they were logically independent, so their benefits are not really benefits of the streetcar as compared to the bus.

A streetcar on Colfax would serve about the same amount of people at about the same speed as BRT, but would cost much more, according to the Colfax study by RTD and DPW. The agencies estimate it would cost $115 million to build BRT, plus $13 million annually to operate. A streetcar system on Colfax would cost $450 million to build, and $24 million a year to operate.

City Hall still needs to firm up a timetable for design and implementation, but the money in Hancock’s budget takes the city out of the planning stages and into the design stages. After that wraps up, the city will identify where the money will come from, and try to secure federal funding to help build BRT on Colfax.

  • JerryG

    Yes, a streetcar is more expensive but the study showed that it would halve resulted in more economic development along the corridor (roughly 2x). This could mean that a streetcar line might have helped Colfax reach its full redevelopment potential, which would result in more people living along the corridor and likely would have resulted increased ridership. That outcome was not, or perhaps could not have been, accounted for in that study.

  • rorojo

    A good start, but these things tend to get watered down. A bus only travel lane is essential, fast loading unloading, and the smart traffic lights should be not be negotiable.

    Who would operate the system?

    • David Sachs

      It’s unclear this early. Denver buying up service from RTD is a possibility.

      • Buying it? Hell, condemn it under immanent domain and take it away from the nightmare that is Reason To Drive!

  • dave

    Why dedicated bus lanes only during rush hour? Colfax should be redesigned to provide a permanent, hardscaped busway which would speed up transit and also provide a more pedestrian friendly streetscape. I’m afraid this “BRT” is going to be watered down and resemble the rush hour bus lane we have on broadway right now.

    • neroden

      Because they really, really don’t want to do a good job.

      The business community has been advocating a streetcar with its own lanes for a looooong time. There used to be a streetcar. There is room for it to have its own lanes. Why not?

      Part-time bus lanes are a joke.

    • enguy

      I’m fine with this, since Colfax really doesn’t have many major backups outside of rush hour (i.e. it’s not Colorado Boulevard). The bigger issue that this will solve is traffic signal timing, which right now is terrible on Colfax. Even if all Denver did was to give the 15 signal priority at non-major intersections, that would probably speed up the average bus by 5+ minutes.

  • neroden

    Frankly the numbers coming out of the study are fishy. It does cost more to put up overhead wire and put down tracks than it does to paint bus lanes. But it should cost significantly less to operate a long streetcar with its own lanes than it does to operate buses in mostly mixed traffic.

    Did they treat the cost of road repairs for the buses as “somebody else’s problem”? That would account for the disparity.

    • You found the big issue with any “study” RTD has their finger in! RTD shifts every bit of maintenance off onto someone else. The also shift capital construction costs off when it is in their favor. Remember Fast Tracks was this great program to get expanded light rail and commuter rail. There are hidden additional costs all over that beast. Parking structures? The cities will get the bill for those if they want a train stop! They still blew the budget, can’t hit the timeline promised and brought in a raft of “Private Partners” who will cart off tons of guaranteed profits regardless of cost and service levels. Just look at their private partner bus operators! If you want to get people out of their cars, offer something better!

  • This study has been going on for 15 years. Now we are looking at keeping the same failed mode of transportation RTD has been offering since 1971 only bigger. It is nothing different than we see on South Broadway. RTD is over budget and well off schedule in getting “Fast” Tracks built out. It is time to move RTD off this corridor and make something that works! RTD’s projections show a 26% increase in bus ridership which exactly mirrors growth in the area covered by the study. Well, that is a no brainer. If they were capable of running an efficient transit system they would be able to attract 52% more ridership with a 26% growth rate in the area. Instead they intend to continue to do exactly what they have been doing which is burning more fossil fuels in the same type of vehicles they and the Denver Tramway Company before them have been running for half a century. RTD is nothing more than an unqualified nursemaid to a pipe dream. Time for new and futuristic thinking! If RTD is in the mix of this project it is DOA. Leave the deign money out of the budget and just keep running the 15 route as it runs now.

    I do give kudos to RTD and, mostly to their partners on the Union Station project. However, that was a real estate/hotel/restaurant project with a train and bus station next door. Maybe we should remove transportation from RTD’s purview and let them redevelop the stock yards project.

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