Update: Council Approves Denver Airport Road Widening That Would Make Traffic Worse

Peña Blvd. viewed from the A Line on April 23, 2016. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Peña Blvd. viewed from the A Line on April 23, 2016. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Update: Monday night the Denver City Council approved this project in an 11-1 vote. Read more at the Denver Post, Denverite or Fox 31.

A plan to widen the road to Denver International Airport, which would make traffic worse and wipe out the city’s newly-minted goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions, will get a vote from the Denver City Council on Monday. The $94 million project would expand part of Peña Boulevard from six to nine lanes and be the first of four phases in a 10-year road expansion program that could total more than $1 billion. 

“There are a set of things that seem like reasonable investments to make the airport more functional,” said Danny Katz of CoPRIG, which is a part of the Denver Streets Partnership, a coalition of mobility advocates. “But my concern is that this is the first phase to a traditional road widening project, and we know that does not work in terms of moving people effectively and smoothly.” 

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Expanding multi-lane urban roads and highways can reduce traffic, but only for a few years before new congestion exceeds earlier levels. The phenomenon, known as induced demand, played out in Denver after the $1.6 billion T-REX expansion of I-25 where traffic worsened in a matter of years after completion.

The Peña project would use airport funds, but the city owns the airport and recently set a goal to cut the number of people who travel alone in cars. The airport did not design the project to align with Denver’s new mobility targets. 

“At the end of the day, we need a goal to reduce single occupancy vehicles,” said Katz. “And then work from that goal, using trains, buses, shuttles and ride share so we’re not just adding more cars to the region.” 

The city’s new mobility goals are a part of Denveright, a sweeping set of plans the council approved just three months ago. They set a target to reduce the number of people who drive alone in the city, from 73 percent of trips today to 50 percent by 2030. If met, the goal would reduce traffic congestion, diminish air pollution and lower emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. Denveright calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Cars crowd the terminal. Image: Denver International Airport
Cars crowd the terminal. Image: Denver International Airport

The city will wipe out those goals if it makes it easier to get to the airport by car. But District 11 Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, whose district includes the airport and surrounding neighborhoods, said in an interview that she will vote for the first phase of the project, in part because she says the road is congested, it needs upgrades after 24 years of use and the airport would gain a designated bus lane. 

“There is going to be increased lane capacity, but that’s only 6.4 percent of the project,” she said. “That will allow us to have a designated bus lane to help us get those SOV trips off the roadway.”

The first phase of the project came up for a vote at Monday’s council meeting when Raphael Espinoza, an outgoing councilmember, pushed it to next week so that incoming councilmembers could have a say. But he raised a number of questions, including whether the amount of traffic on Peña justifies the expansion. 

“When does it get bumper to bumper?” he asked at the meeting. 

But Gilmore said on a phone call that she regularly hears of traffic congestion.

“I have plenty of emails from individuals,” she said. “Or if you go on Nextdoor or Facebook, you will see pictures of bumper to bumper traffic on Peña, especially for early morning travelers.” 

RTD A Line trains approach the airport transit center. Image: Denver International Airport
RTD A Line trains approach the airport transit center. Image: Denver International Airport

She also expressed skepticism that her constituents who drive work trucks or run food trucks would be willing to switch to public transportation. Other residents may balk the $10.50 fare to take the A Line to DIA. 

“How would we incentivize individuals to not drive to the airport?” she asked. “What are the mechanisms that folks are thinking to do that? How can we have those conversations?” 

But mobility advocates say those conversations should happen before approving the project. Unlike the work that went into the Denveright plans, which included extensive public comments over several years, transportation advocates only learned of the Peña Boulevard widening June 19 and were not included in discussions before it was sent to the full council for a vote. 

“There needs to be way more transparency whenever DIA is spending money on moving people to or from the airport,” said Katz. “They’re not just making decisions about their property. They really are a connector to the whole region, we are all impacted by it.”

The success of the Regional Transportation District’s A Line train to the airport, which exceeded ridership expectations with 7 million boardings in 2018 and required expanding two-car trains to four cars earlier this year, demonstrates another example of induced demand: When people have good alternatives to driving, they will take them. 

A sea of car storage in extends until it reaches four massive parking structures. Image: Denver International Airport
A sea of car storage extends until it reaches four massive parking structures. Image: Denver International Airport

But airport officials seem to think they’ve done enough for public transportation. DIA spent $350 million on a transit hub, which opened in 2016 to accommodate busses and the A Line. They also paid more than $30 million toward the 61st and Peña station.

“In the past five years, we have spent $400 million on transit,” said Rachel Marion, director of government affairs for DIA. “Which to our knowledge, is more than any other entity in the state of Colorado outside of RTD and maybe CDOT.” 

But RTD says the A Line could be expanded. Some segments of the line have just one track, which limits its frequency to four trains per hour in each direction. But stations could be adapted to accommodate longer trains. 

“The station platforms can be built out to increase train length from four to eight cars each,” said Laurie Huff, a spokesperson for RTD, in an email. “The track alignment and geometry were designed and constructed to allow for future expansion.” 

Airport officials are eager to push the project through now after resolving a battle with the Federal Aviation Administration that started in 2010.  

“The FAA wrote a letter that the airport can no longer pay for Peña Boulevard,” said George Merritt, the head of government affairs for the airport. 

As commercial and residential development went up along Peña, local traffic on the road increased and airports are not allowed to pay for improvements that do not directly benefit their passengers. But the FAA and DIA reached a compromise in 2017 which allows the airport to pay for the first phase of the project in its entirety, and 75 percent of the future phases. 

The four phases of the Peña widening could cost $400 million for the entire 12-mile project, but the project study lists several scenarios that would exceed $1 billion.

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  • TakeFive

    Oy Vey… DIA is like way out to the NE in Adams Co, – aside from the ribbon of land that Denver was allowed to annex. https://www.flydenver.com/den20/then_now

    Today, DIA generates more than $26 billion in annual economic impact for Colorado and supports nearly 190,000 jobs. It remains the largest and newest commercial airport in the United States,

    Even though Denver’s MSA is 19th largest, DIA is the 5th busiest airport in the country.

    The notion of some downtown Denver Urbanists wanting to impose their values on a region from Fort Collins to Castle Rock and from Aspen/Glennwood Springs is hilarious. There’s an old biblical expression “choose your battles wisely.” Just a good guess that taking on a $26 billion annual economic power is a loser.

    • mckillio

      It’s the Denver, not Colorado airport and denying this won’t have any real consequences to those outside of Denver. DIA should make a new proposal without the expansion part, it seems guaranteed that it would get approved.

    • John Riecke

      What’s this “imposing values” comment? Isn’t it “imposing values” when people demand the right to drive from their front door to the airport drop off without delay and all the traffic and pollution that entails? Improving transit instead of widening roads isn’t about imposing values, it’s about promoting the best transportation options for the city and the state.

      • TakeFive

        I love (good) transit. Would you believe that next year Denver/RTD will enter it’s 3rd decade of trying to get BRT-style transit improvements along East Colfax?

        RTD needs a minimum $15 billion in new revenue for investment plus funding for operating costs over the next 25 years. If the City wants their own transit enhancements on top of RTD, then Denver will need more $billions.

    • Logan Meyer

      Your quoted $26 billion “impact” seems pretty shallow analytically. Would you mind separating into sales tax receipts for the city, in comparison to long term bond and debt obligations the city now owes?

      • TakeFive

        If unfamiliar that’s a very good question. https://www.flydenver.com/about/press_kit/ownership_management_and_employment

        The airport is owned by the City and County of Denver and is operated by the Denver Department of Aviation. The Department of Aviation is an enterprise as defined by the Colorado Constitution. As an enterprise, DEN does not use any taxpayer dollars for its operation.

        Very similar to VF Corp which recently moved its HQ to Denver; its wholly owned subsidiary Vans operates independently with its own HQ in Costa Mesa CA. VFC also owns North Face which has its own HQ in Alameda CA. With respect to bonding DEN issues its own revenue backed bonds: https://www.flydenver.com/sites/default/files/downloads/18-039%20BondIssuanceRelease%208.16.pdf

        DENVER – Aug. 17, 2018 – On Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, Denver International Airport (DEN) issued the largest single airport bond issuance in history. DEN offered $2.281 billion in bonds to fund its five-year capital plan. The market responded with strong demand resulting in DEN upsizing the offering to a final par total of $2.526 billion.

        All revenue from airport operations belong to DEN including sales taxes.

  • mckillio

    There’s no reason for this expansion but the other improvements seem useful. DIA should make a new proposal. If DIA could get exemptions to fund the road then surely they can get exemptions for A line funding.

  • Camera_Shy

    “At the end of the day, we need a goal to reduce single occupancy vehicles,”

    Umm, aren’t most (if not all) of the single occupancy vehicles that travel to the airport those which are rental cars?!?! Business people returning to the airport to go home?

    I’m against this expansion. I’ve never been to DIA when there’s been any amount of traffic.
    Spend the money enabling the A-Line to run more often and longer hours (24/7?).

    Nothing in the argument for this expansion makes any sense, nor does it go along with reducing traffic and/or pollution.

  • enguy

    I’ve honestly never run into traffic on Pena Boulevard, except in extreme weather conditions. The real bottleneck is entering the airport itself, where you have cars zooming across all lanes because they don’t know which side they’re going to, and the spot where the ramp to arrivals narrows to one lane.

    So yeah, phases 2-4 definitely seem like a waste of money to me, as does some of phase 1. This also make me skeptical of the induced demand argument—that generally applies after a road is already congested, and then widened. Pena is already free-flowing basically all the time, so so adding a lane won’t suddenly make it busier.

    • TakeFive

      To their credit the notion of “induced demand” is a rather clever talking point. For those who live in growing metro areas it’s now a given that you can’t grow your way out of congestion; the more relevant question is how much congestion and logistically it’s really about capacity during peak demand.

    • fdtutf

      The real bottleneck is entering the airport itself, where you have cars zooming across all lanes because they don’t know which side they’re going to, and the spot where the ramp to arrivals narrows to one lane.

      That sounds like something that could be solved with better signage rather than adding capacity, but then I’m speaking as someone who hasn’t been to Denver in almost ten years, so what do I know.

  • TakeFive

    Let’s play with numbers. Downtown Denver has less than 10% of the metro employment base. Business travelers, the year around staple for DIA, more typically travel between their home and airport. Regardless of status, flying out of Denver is stressful. Today, planes fly full; you can’t afford to miss your flight.

    Roughly 250,000 people use the airport on an average day. Airlines (also) have peak and off-peak flying times. I love the A Line; it carries less than 10% of those who need to get to DIA. The over 90% of travelers flying out have one thing in mind: Efficiency – they want to get to the airport reliably in a predictable amount of time.

    The growth in ride-sharing to the airport has been phenomenal. For Uber/Lyft drivers who want to focus on AP trips they are out there as early as 4:00 a.m. The vast majority of flyers coming from the suburbs can anticipate that an Uber/Lyft driver will arrive withing ten minutes of a trip request.

    • Camera_Shy

      “Roughly 250,000 people use the airport on an average day”

      Subtracting out the people who work there we get 215,000. How many of those are catching connecting flights and never use Pena Blvd?

      • TakeFive

        Excellent question; So I found a 350 page pdf – but fortunately I found the answer on pg 17. Phew! 63% are originating passengers while the other 37% would be connecting passengers (whether enplaning or deplaning).

        That means roughly 135,000 of the 215,000 are originating or terminating. If I add the 35,000 employees back in (since they need to get there too) we have a new total of 170,000. Using the recently posted APTA ridership numbers for commuter rail for the 1st quarter of 2019 means the A Line is carrying about 12% of that.

        Thanks for your insight; I’m sure I error more than I realize w/o the help of others.

        • Camera_Shy

          Thanks for the reply! I’m pretty baffled that 35,000 people work at the airport everyday. That seem like a lot. Perhaps it includes the people who drive there to take flights as employees (pilots/attendants/etc)?

          In any case, Denver/RTD should be doing everything they can to increase the percentage that the A-Line carries, 12% is pathetic and to spend money widening a freeway that is not anywhere near capacity is not good. /soapbox

  • Roads_Wide_Open

    I will never buy into the induced demand argument, especially in this location. HOWEVER, I go to DIA a dozen times a year and never have congestion issues at this location. I will agree a bus lane would be welcomed and they need to have better signage and work on the striping. This area needs improvements, but maybe not to the level they wish to make them. I salute the idea of building for the future demand, but it’s just not there yet.

    • TakeFive

      Ask your friendly Uber driver when DEN is crazy busy and when it’s slow. There are peak and off peak travel times.

      DIA’s passenger traffic grew at a healthy 5.1% last year, down from 8% a couple of years ago. Last year DEN had 64.5 million passengers. As a part of their $2.5 billion bonding improvements, DEN is adding 39 new gates across all three concourses to their existing 111 gates to be available in Spring of 2021. All new gates are spoken for.

      Good guess that within 5 years DEN will start serious planning (the conceptual work has been done) for a new (smaller) terminal south of Jeppeson terminal. The airport is running out of capacity to deliver passengers to the current concourses.

  • kevd

    4 an hour to and from a distant, exurban airport actually isn’t that bad, frequency-wise.

  • TakeFive

    Yes, the new Denver City Council took their maiden voyage last night. Our newly minted democratic socialist – you can call me an anarchist – Candi CdeBaca was the only vote against DIA’s need to expand Pena Blvd. Chris Hinds abstained saying he wasn’t up to speed on the issue – that’s fair.

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