On parallel tracks
Denver officials are hoping that the long commuter nightmare on the city’s southeast corridor — an area through which 230,000 cars pass each day — is finally over. After more than seven years of planning and construction, the Transportation Expansion (T-REX) Project, a $1.67 billion combination of light-rail lines and highway expansion, will officially open on Nov. 17, on time and within budget. T-REX is part of Denver’s answer to a problem affecting many major cities: traffic congestion.
T-REX comes to life
Planning for the project began in June 1999, with the passage of a law allowing the state Department of Transportation (CDOT) to use Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes to borrow money based on federal funds the state had not yet approved. Then, CDOT, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD), the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration signed agreements to work on the project, and in November, voters approved the plan to run light rail through the corridor. Southeast Corridor Constructors, a joint venture between Omaha, Neb.-based Kiewit Construction and New York-based Parsons Transportation Group, won a design-build contract in May 2001, and construction began one month later.
The project involved 17 miles of highway improvements along Interstates 25 and 225, from adding extra lanes to completely redesigning certain interchanges. At the same time, 13 new light-rail stations were built, along with a 125,000-square-foot facility for maintaining 34 new light-rail vehicles from Sacramento, Calif.-based Siemens Transportation Systems. About 19 miles of new track connects the stations, some of which were made with 7,000 tons of steel recycled from the old Mile High Stadium.
Design-build saves time
T-REX is one of a few transportation projects to use a design-build contract in which the same contractor is responsible for the project’s engineering and construction. Under a design-build contract, the contracting agency provides a general concept of the plan, and the contractor is responsible for most of the details, many of which are worked out as the project proceeds. “We think, based on our research, that [T-REX] is the largest transportation design-build project in the country,” says Richard Clarke, T-REX project director. “We were able to get it done a lot faster because we [finished] a lot of the construction before the design was completely done.”
To keep in budget, project managers sometimes had to deny requests for enhancements from participating cities and agencies unless they had the money to meet the request. For example, Clarke received a request for three more pedestrian bridges to connect residential areas with light-rail stations. Clarke denied the request initially because it would require extra funding. “We were very unpopular for that decision,” Clarke says. Finally, a group of businesses raised $7.5 million of the $13 million cost of the bridges, the participating cities provided another $1.8 million, and Clarke’s team covered the rest.
CDOT Deputy Executive Director Peggy Catlin says the agency plans to use design-build again on future projects, including redesigning parts of I-25 in Colorado Springs, which is already under way. “[Design-build] is not the answer to every project, but it definitely is a good delivery method,” Catlin says. The trick to successfully using design-build is to pay careful attention to the contract, she says.
Initially, the project called for only light rail construction, says RTD General Manager Clarence Marsella, but when Gov. Bill Owens took office he changed the priority to highway expansion. However, the idea of only adding more traffic lanes soon drew protests from environmental groups and others. “So, one fateful day I met with the state DOT director and said, ‘Look, the bottom line is you’re not going to build the highway and [make] improvements without us, and we’re not going to build any transit without you,’” Marsella says. The idea for creating a single multi-modal project came from that discussion, he says.
In July 2001, executives from CDOT, RTD and the two federal agencies established the partnership’s charter that included mutual goals and processes for team evaluation, issue resolution and escalation. The project management team oversaw more than 20 task forces for specific jobs, with each submitting monthly reports to managers.
Combining the light-rail and highway expansion improved efficiency, Catlin says. “If you were to do them separately, you would be in the right of way at different times, [and] there would probably be duplicated costs,” she says.
Now, CDOT and RTD are joining with other agencies to redevelop Denver Union Station and surrounding properties in the heart of the town’s historic district. Informal partnerships also formed between the T-REX project managers and smaller municipalities around Denver. “We’re seeing development on T-REX at every one of our station sites. [It is] textbook transit-oriented development, mixed-use, residential, businesses [and] office,” Marsella says. “We couldn’t have scripted it any better, and nobody’s making anybody do it. They’re all doing it because they made the decision [that] this is a good business move.”
For example, Englewood, Colo., a suburb located on the southeast corridor, has redesigned the area around its T-REX light-rail station into a transit-oriented community. The old city hall was demolished to make way for a station parking lot, then the city combined all municipal functions — including the library, city administration and municipal court — into a renovated department store. Apartment buildings were constructed next to the station around an open plaza, which included stores and shops within walking distance. The development has brought in more than $2.5 million in sales tax so far. “We just took advantage of transit as another asset,” says City Manager Gary Sears.
The city council was divided on the plan when it was first considered, but Englewood Mayor Pro Tem Jim Woodward says the debate has died as people began to see the value in the development’s accessibility. The uniqueness of the project could attract more growth in the future, Woodward says.
Models for others
In early October, representatives from the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Valley Metro Rail system in Phoenix observed T-REX. Phoenix is in the early stages of a similar project on its Interstate 10 corridor, one that also involves expanding the highway and building more rail lines, says Wulf Grote, director of project development for Valley Metro Rail. “We hoped the trip to Denver would spark some discussion on working together,” Grote says.
While Phoenix’s light-rail project will not be complete until around 2019, the highway improvements are supposed to be finished in the next five years. As in T-REX, Valley Metro wants to run its rail lines in the highway’s right-of-way. “One of the problems you have with rail projects is trying to find a good route, especially in built-up areas,” Grote says.
Congestion is a problem in any large city, says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, chairman of the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Transportation and Communications Standing Committee. “When you look at cities that are growing, [transportation problems are] almost overwhelming,” he says.
Hickenlooper says transit systems like light rail offer a good solution to congestion because, even if you add more highway lanes, they quickly are filled with more cars. “You can add more and more [traffic] to that [rail] line, and not only does it not slow down, it takes more people,” he says. Combining rail lines with highway expansion has a lot of appeal to voters, but the ability to do so depends on the amount of space available for the project, Hickenlooper says.
The Utah Department of Transportation’s work on expanding Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City, another design-build project, was a model for T-REX. That project also required collaboration between UDOT and the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) because it combined a light-rail project with the roadwork, says Doug Dansie, principal planner for the Salt Lake City Planning Department. “[The rail lines] were built because just expanding the freeway wasn’t enough to handle the [commuter] capacity,” Dansie says. Those rail lines, unlike T-REX, were not in the interstate’s right-of-way.
This month, Salt Lake County residents will vote on a proposed sales tax increase to raise money for transit projects, Dansie says. UTA’s TRAX light-rail program has been very successful in Salt Lake County, he says, primarily because the area is a long, narrow valley where 80 percent of the population lives close to the rail line. However, Dansie believes projects like T-REX that combine traffic and highway expansion are probably the best approach to relieving congestion, though there is currently a bias toward road expansion. “It really does need to be a balance,” Dansie says.