On April 22nd, the Regional Transportation District will celebrate the grand opening of the rail line from Union Station in downtown Denver to Denver International Airport. Known as the University of Colorado A Line (though nothing associated with the university system is found along the line), the route is comprised of 23 miles of rail and provides a long-awaited connection to the airport through a light rail system started more than 22 years ago.
Passengers will be able to board the train starting at Union Station and six other stops en route to the airport including RiNo, Park Hill, Stapleton, Aurora and Green Valley Ranch. Besides taking the rail line in its entirety from downtown to the airport, stops between the end points are available at a reduced rate.
Parking is available at all eight stops on the A Line with over 4,000 parking spots along the way. The commuter rail trains are designed to accommodate passengers traveling with luggage, which they must self-load. Once travelers arrive at the airport, they will disembark on Level 1 and will need to take an escalator to Level 5 to check bags, obtain tickets and go through security for air travel. Along with the new Westin Hotel, opened late last year, the new rail line provides additional convenience for global travelers at the already world-class airport. Downtown’s newly renovated Union Station opened in 2014 and with the DIA line opening, is starting to take shape as the regional transportation hub is now linking buses, rail lines, B-cycle and other modes of transportation to airport rail service.
The new A Line expands metropolitan rail service to seven lines from Jefferson County in the west, Littleton, Southmoor and Lone Tree in the south, Five Points and now DIA in the east. The route expands the number of stations in the system from 46 to 53. Besides the new DIA line, three other routes are projected to open this year – an I-225 line in Aurora, east and south of Denver, the Gold Line to Arvada, north of Denver, and portions of the Northwest Rail Line to Westminster. In the next two years, the North Metro route to Thornton is scheduled for completion.
Originally approved by voters in 2004, the funding to expand rail service known as FasTracks has since diminished with inflation while cost projections have risen faster than tax and fare collections. The .4 percent sales and use tax allowed by voters in eight counties comprising RTD – Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson and Weld – has proven insufficient to fund all envisioned FasTracks projects, causing managers to consider going back to voters or pursuing public-private partnerships to finish the master plan.
Hard Fought Rail History
Talk to former Regional Transportation District spokesperson, Andrew Hudson, and completion of any aspect of the light rail system was hard to imagine. In the early 1990’s, Hudson worked for outgoing CEO/General Manager, Peter Cipolla, trying to guide a hardworking staff through the birth of light rail in Denver amidst rising costs and board of directors infighting. On October 7, 1994, the first RTD light rail line opened during Mayor Wellington Webb’s third year in office and was a crowning achievement of the Cipolla administration at RTD. The line used no local taxes but instead, RTD’s capital reserve and bonds sold by the district. The first light rail started at I-25 and Broadway, traversed downtown, and ended its run at 30th and Downing. Now part of the ‘D’ line, this 5.3 miles of track would serve as the prototype for the expansive light rail system in Denver.
It was a tremendous accomplishment to have opened the first light rail line in a time of board dysfunction. Hudson notes that during this era RTD board member “Jon Caldara wrote Congress asking them to take back funding for mass transit, board member Jack McCroskey chased board President Ben Klein under a table during a meeting” and shouting matches were commonplace. It was this divided board that was charged with selecting a new manager for the mass transit agency. With one group of board members swept into office during the midterm Republican revolution, RTD became the microcosm that represented the national conservative wave. One faction of the board supported one candidate and a more progressive faction on the board were strident in their support of a different candidate. Each side’s unwillingness to yield to the others’ favorite choice resulted in a compromise candidate; “a transit professional that didn’t have big transit experience, but rather came from a small transit firm in Miami,” according to Hudson.
Cal Marsella joined RTD as CEO and General Manager in 1995, picking up where Cipolla left off and broadening the vision for vast light rail services throughout the Denver metropolitan area. Last month, Cal Marsella died unexpectedly, leaving as a legacy an expansive light rail system that was hard to imagine when he took office.
“Looking back to 1994 there is no one who thought that because of the cost that there would be a new rail line that would transport passengers to Denver International Airport. There were drawings and schematics that existed but completion couldn’t be imagined in that environment,” said Hudson. “The line to DIA is, at least in part, a tribute to Cal Marsella, but also a dedicated staff that had real values and belief in what they were doing,”
Union Station to DIA Rail Line Grand Opening
The Grand Opening Ceremony and Celebration of the Union Station to Denver International Airport will be held from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Friday, April 22nd at the airport. The Downtown to DIA rail line is free on April 22nd starting at 12 p.m. On April 23rd, family-friendly station parties will take place at every stop along the line between downtown and DIA. Regular service will commence on April 24th. Typical fare is $9 one-way but monthly passes can be purchased at a discount. Airport service is included in the EcoPass and CollegePass at no additional charge. For more information, see www.rtd-denver.com.