How Denver Got It Wrong

One of the great planning cockups of the 2010s is the Denver Union Station redevelopment. Originally constructed in 1894-1914 as a through station, Denver Union had adjacent light rail platforms added in 2002. In the last few years, the station has been redeveloped into a stub terminal, requiring a reverse move for all of the four new PRR/NEC spec commuter rail lines that will open in 2016-18. The light rail station was also moved further away.

But this didn’t have to be. A look at historic aerials shows just how recently Denver had the opportunity to go a different direction.


In 1993, the rail yards sit empty and unused. Union Station is at the center right. The 16th street bus mall ends a few blocks short of the station, which is only used by a single daily Amtrak and the ski train. The southern approach to the station has been closed off as part of the Speer Boulevard widening, but a tail track remains.


In 1999, the Pepsi Center opens. This fills out the former rail yards south of Speer, along with the relocated Elitch Gardens and a whole lot of surface parking. This slightly forecloses Denver Union’s possibilities as a through terminal, but not by much – rail expansion could simply bend around the stadium.


By 2007, the Union Station EIS has been approved and work is proceeding to make transit in Denver less usable. A light rail stop and bus turnaround are immediately adjacent to the station, where they’ve been since 2002. This would make a very nice transfer point, if any commuter rail existed. A new headquarters building for the Gates Corporation (oil and gas, not computers) has been infilled at Wewatta and 15th, and the tail track has been removed. A pedestrian promenade is under construction to the west of the LRT stop.


The pedestrian promenade, which was under construction, has now been removed. An underground bus mall will go there instead. Transit advocates are suing the FTA over impending destruction of the close-in LRT platforms. A reasonably-attractive pocket park has appeared between Wewatta and 16th.


The pocket park is gone, replaced by more infill. While it might theoretically be possible to extend tracks southward from under the existing canopy, this building completes the boxing-in that makes future expansion cost prohibitive. Denver Union will be a six-platform stub terminal, forevermore.

What Could Have Been

It’s easy to imagine a better station design than the relatively-pointless “swoopy roof with a hole in it” that occupies the site now. Likewise, it’s also easy to say that right-of-way banking should have begun 25 years ago, when the area was all still brownfield. The Canadians plan transit on this timeframe, and Texas does it well with highways.

But this is almost too easy. What if, instead, we take the station design as a given, the Pepsi Center as a given, and start from a 2002 baseline? What should’ve been built? Possibly something like this:

Red represents the ultimate alignment of the Central Platte Valley LRT corridor. The Union Station LRT platforms actually move closer to the commuter rail/Amtrak platforms, using the space vacated by the former bus turnaround. Two existing railroad bridges are also repurposed for LRT, adding visual interest.

Orange represents a rough path of electrified tail tracks from the south end of Denver Union. When the northern commuter rail lines go live in 2016-18, these would be used as storage and staging. If a high-quality link to the south (e.g. Colorado Springs) was established, commuter rail would take over the stops at Elitch Gardens and Mile High.

While not integral to a revised Union Station design, the west LRT corridor also could’ve been designed better.

– The current pedestrian routes from Mile High Stadium to the nearest LRT stops require a full half-mile of walking. Moving the Decatur/Federal stop east could have shortened this distance to a still-long-but-manageable 1600′.

– The Central Platte Valley corridor originally had a “Y” where it joined with the 1994 LRT line. This got ripped out only a few years later when the Auraria West station was relocated to allow connection with the West LRT. At this time, the wye was removed and operating possibilities limited accordingly. If the West Corridor design had instead rebuilt the wye, it would have been possible to (i) run direct trains to a relocated West LRT @ Mile High station, and (ii) run West LRT trains into the Downtown LRT loop along Stout and California.

As it stands now, one cannot make a cross-platform transfer from the West LRT to the Central LRT. This means that anyone bound for downtown must transfer to a 16th Street Mall bus. It also eliminates the possibility of single-transfer rides to Five Points, I-225, and Englewood/Littleton after 6pm (when the C Line stops running).



One thought on “How Denver Got It Wrong”

  1. The 2006 Decatur station area planning effort conducted by the City of Denver Planning staff and consultant team moved the station platform further east to the area that you have identified. Moving the station provided an opportunity for more TOD investment, a grand promenade to the stadium, a direct linkage Sun Valley (transit dependent residential neighborhood to the south ), provided a linkage between the station and the underutilized Platte River trolley. All this could have occur at cost saving of $6 million dollars! Despite all these benefits, the RTD project engineering team was unwilling to make the changes for primarily schedule reasons. What a loss.

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