West Side Transit and Walking Projects Shouldn’t Have to Fight Over Funding Scraps

If Denver got its house in order on road maintenance, council members wouldn't be forced to choose between much-needed transit fixes for Federal Boulevard and other street improvements.

People wait at an RTD "bus stop" at the intersection of 14th Avenue, Federal Boulevard, and Howard Place. Photo: David Sachs
People wait at an RTD "bus stop" at the intersection of 14th Avenue, Federal Boulevard, and Howard Place. Photo: David Sachs

Much-needed transit improvements on Federal Boulevard are getting shortchanged in the City Council’s transportation project list for the $937 million bond measure heading to voters in November. Funding that had been slated for Federal will be spent on smaller transit and pedestrian improvements. Meanwhile, the $100 million in bond funding that Mayor Hancock set aside for routine road maintenance, which should be covered by annual city budgeting instead of a special referendum, remains untouched.

The City Council approved a request Monday night from council members Paul Lopez and Rafael Espinoza to exchange a $9.8 million Federal Boulevard transit project for four smaller ones focused on pedestrian safety and transit on Federal, Morrison Road, West Colfax Avenue, and Central Street.

The Federal Boulevard project would have sped up buses on a six-mile stretch from 38th Avenue to Evans Avenue, giving buses priority at traffic signals, adding bus lane segments to bypass congestion, and building out bus bulbs and “enhanced” bus stops.

The Lopez-Espinoza amendment [PDF] siphons that money to other transit and pedestrian improvements. Some will pay for transit priority treatments on two miles of West Colfax. The rest will go to three projects focused on pedestrians: Crosswalks and curb extensions on Federal, a road diet with wider sidewalks and tree lawns on Morrison Road, and some streetscaping on Central Street in Highland.

Here’s the thing: All of these projects are good and the city shouldn’t have to choose between them.

“It feels horrible to take money away from buses on Federal to give money to pedestrians on Federal,” Federal Boulevard Partnership Executive Director Leslie Twarogowski told council members during a public hearing Monday. “I hate that we’ve gotten to the point where we have to make this choice.” Twarogowski endorsed the amendment.

Transit Alliance came out in favor of keeping the Federal transit project, given its huge significance to the city’s transit network. It’s Denver’s second-busiest transit corridor behind Colfax, and would be one of the trunk routes in any frequent bus network.

But Lopez’s goals are also worthwhile, and received plenty of public support at the hearing. Beyond pedestrian safety fixes, which inherently help transit, he wants to prepare for bus rapid transit on West Colfax after years of fighting to connect that project, which focused solely on East Colfax, to his district.

“We fought left and right to get it done, and unfortunately we were not successful,” Lopez said. “It is what it is. We were chasing a jumbo jet speeding down the runway. So what we want to do is be able to prepare ourselves on West Colfax for the same opportunities.”

While there is a conceptual plan for Federal Boulevard, Lopez and Espinoza argued that their projects are more shovel-ready.

The city will never have infinite resources and at some point you have to choose between different options. But in this case, it’s a choice that wouldn’t be necessary if Denver budgeted properly for road maintenance. About $100 million in bond funds are slated for routine upkeep of roadways and bridges. That’s the level Mayor Hancock chose, and Lopez and Espinoza are understandably reluctant to challenge that decision.

This bond measure is a rare chance to fund major transit upgrades. Speeding up buses on the second-busiest transit corridor in Denver should indisputably qualify for funds. Instead, because City Hall hasn’t figured out how to pay for routine maintenance responsibly, these much-needed improvements will have to wait.

City Council will vote to send the final project list to the ballot next Monday.