Why RTD is having trouble finishing a short line between 30th and Downing and 38th and Blake

The Central Rail Extension represents less than a mile of rail and two new stations. It’s cheap at $110 million, but it’s still out of reach for now.

A map of the future Central Rail Extension. (RTD)
A map of the future Central Rail Extension. (RTD)
A map of the future Central Rail Extension. (RTD)

While the new L Line is great for light rail riders who use the train downtown, there’s another project in the area that might be more exciting: the Central Rail Extension. With the Central Rail Extension, light rail from Welton Street would be connected to the A Line at the 38th and Blake stop, providing a new downtown connection.

This being famously cash-strapped RTD and all, there are a few hurdles to overcome before it’s delivered. It’s the agency’s cheapest project in FasTracks at roughly $110 million, but funding hasn’t been identified yet. 

RTD spokesperson Nate Currey said that the agency can’t quite issue that much money in bonds. Still, in the era of public-private partnerships and creative funding solutions, “all options are on the table.”

Someday, after funding has been identified, the CRE will give you a new way to ride from the airport to the core of downtown. All it will take is constructing less than a mile of additional rail and two new stations.

The end of the RTD line in Five Points. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) five points; rtd; light rail; denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty
The current end of the RTD line in Five Points at 30th and Downing. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Part of the reason why that will cost about $110 million is because the city of Denver has also asked RTD to relocate utilities along the corridor where construction is expected to happen.

At one point, RTD was considering using low-floor vehicles — think streetcar — for this project, but Currey said that adding a third type of rail car into the RTD fleet is prohibitively expensive.

“Streetcar is not an option for us, only because it would introduce a third type of rail vehicle for us.” he said. “We’d have to have a whole new maintenance facility for it; we’d have to create a new fleet. It would just really increase our cost exponentially as far as operating three different fleets.”

Even once funding is identified, there are engineering challenges that haven’t been resolved yet.

Using light rail along Downing comes with its own set of problems, namely that the trains might not always run on time. Running trains through the Welton Corridor with its traffic is already tricky. As CRE Project Manager Andy Mutz wrote in a February 2016 memo:

“Current on-time performance for the Welton Corridor is lower than the standard performance of 90% (82% in 2014) and based on travel times from the study, the Downing segment will make things worse.”

And more to the point:

“The information developed from the 2015 efforts suggests that the use of instreet running light rail on Downing Street may not be in the best approach for RTD or our riders.”

Currey said people shouldn’t worry too much about that, though.

“It will definitely take a reconfiguration of the street. However, having said that, it’s up to Denver Public Works and us to work together to reconfigure the street, just like we’re doing with 16th Street. There’s room there for a single-track light rail and two sets of vehicle travel, north and south,” he said.

In the meantime, if you have a pile of money laying around, be sure to hit up RTD.