Antiquated to Elevated: Connecting Denver With Colfax BRT

This is part six of the Streetsblog Denver series covering the Elevate Denver General Obligation bond. Every Tuesday, we’ll dissect biking, walking, and transit upgrades across the city. We’ll explore the planning aspects behind key projects in addition to considering how these changes will affect the lives of people in the communities where they are located. Read parts one, two, three, and four, and five

Last week, this series took a look at some of the desperately-needed pedestrian upgrades from the Elevate Denver bond on Colfax Avenue. These improvements are bundled together with the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that could still be up to ten years away. This week Streetsblog is going to unpack this highly-anticipated addition to Denver’s mobility network. This piece will take you through what BRT is, why Colfax is the perfect spot for it, and how it will affect the thousands of people who use this corridor daily. 

 The 15 and 15L bus routes down Colfax are the busiest transit lines in Denver. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, around 22,000 people relied on this service every weekday. Even with many Denverites no longer commuting or traveling outside their homes, this route still moves thousands of essential workers in and out of downtown and across the city. Currently, the 15 bus route slowly makes its way up and down Colfax. From stop to stop, the bus needs to pull in and out of traffic, while also being slowed by other vehicles on the road. 

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A conceptual view of a Colfax BRT station

Bus Rapid Transit on Colfax is designed to help alleviate these issues that can make the thoroughfare so tedious. The principal changes that come with BRT are two dedicated center lanes on Colfax for the bus beginning at the Denver-Aurora border at Yosemite and continuing all the way to Osage St. The bus-only lanes allow for transit to avoid getting caught up with traffic caused by people in single-occupancy vehicles. This BRT line will also feature a unique boarding system. On a typical route, the bus pulls up, everyone pushes up the stairs and pays at the front of the bus. To increase efficiency at stops and to free up sidewalk space, BRT passengers will pay at the dedicated station islands on Colfax before boarding. Furthermore, these buses are going to have near-level boarding, meaning people will not have to climb up a set of stairs when getting on the bus. This change also speeds up the boarding process and makes it easier for seniors and people with disabilities to use this system. These changes to the existing Colfax bus service are expected to decrease travel time down the avenue by up to 15 minutes and incentivize people to make the switch to this more eco-friendly form of transportation, according to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI). 

With Bus Rapid Transit implementation on Colfax, existing bus users will also see a reduced number of stops. Whereas buses on Colfax typically have stops every 0.2 miles, BRT will be set up more like a typical light rail or metro system, with stops every half-mile. This may sound like a significant distance, but this means at any point on Colfax, transit users will never be more than a quarter of a mile, or about five minutes walking from a stop, according to DOTI. With all these changes to the current route, the bus will be able to travel significantly faster than vehicles in the general purpose travel lanes, making the bus a highly efficient way for people to make their way across town. 


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Proposed BRT Stations along East Colfax

While some have expressed concern with the idea of taking out an entire lane of car traffic each way on Colfax, advocates like Jill Locantore of the Denver Streets Partnership are sure that the benefits of the service will sway drivers. “As the service becomes more quality and more attractive, it is going to mean more and more people will ride transit,” Locantore tells Streetsblog. She adds that with these changes to the service, “It is going to allow Colfax to carry more people than it does today. If you get more people out of their cars and on the buses, you have nearly infinite capacity for people, compared to very limited capacity for personal vehicles.” 

Community officials are also hoping this huge investment will help address mobility equity issues in Denver. “We have extreme inequity issues in our city and they are only growing,” says Hilarie Portell of the Colfax Mayfair Business Improvement District, in an interview with Streetsblog. “One way to address these are to invest in public transit and area planning that encourages affordable housing around transportation corridors in the city.” With improved travel times and overall service, people living near the Colfax corridor who can’t drive or prefer not to will finally have access to more reliable and efficient service in and out of Central Denver, connecting them to work opportunities, leisure options, and businesses to patronize. 

Unfortunately, this opportunity to bring Colfax transit into the 21st century is still many years off. When the entire project is complete, the City would like the separate BRT lanes with island stations to stretch all the way from the Aurora border at Yosemite Street to Civic Center Station. With only $55 million from the Elevate Bond, a project of this size is not possible without additional funding. Thus, Denver is pursuing more funding through federal grant programs. In order to qualify for these funding opportunities, the project must undergo an environmental review process that falls under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). This process involves bringing in a private consulting firm, in this case the Parsons Transportation Group, to complete the review. 

With the NEPA process starting this fall, the delays facing Bus Rapid Transit on Colfax are now primarily in the hands of the outside consulting group completing these extensive environmental review procedures. “The NEPA process generally works in parallel with preliminary engineering,” according to a spokesperson from DOTI.Engineering and planning identify the characteristics of an alternative to evaluate, and the NEPA requires the alternative be evaluated under a stringent process that includes public involvement. This process could take up to three years to complete.

Locantore expresses that she is confident that work on Colfax doesn’t have to pause entirely during the NEPA process. As Streetsblog explored last week, this could mean implementing the pedestrian upgrades with the separate $20 million that the Elevate Bond has specifically allocated to enhance pedestrian safety on the same corridor. It might not be the ideal, perfectly-packaged and cohesive transformation, but advocates for the Colfax corridor and the communities that surround it encourage continued support to turn Colfax into a more pleasant place to walk and roll. “Sometimes you have to do things in a messy way to do some good in the world,” says Locantore.

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