On Feb. 28, 1995, Denver International Airport opened for business on a vast stretch of prairie 23 miles from downtown. It was, as The Denver Post noted last week, an expensive and controversial project. Opponents decried it as a multibillion-dollar boondoggle, one that Denver taxpayers would rue for decades.
Today, DIA is the world’s 20th-largest airport, serving 60 million passengers in 2019. According to a study by the Colorado Department of Transportation, DIA had an economic impact of $33.5 billion on the Colorado economy in 2018 and accounted directly or indirectly for 259,000 jobs.
That’s probably an understatement. Vast regional airports such as DIA, LAX, and DFW underpin jobs and economies far removed from the metro areas they serve. Like railroad hubs and interstate highways, they’re crucial to state and regional economies.
Four months before DIA welcomed its first passengers (on a VIP flight from Colorado Springs!), we beat ’em to the punch. Our $140 million south terminal transformed our dowdy, aging passenger-unfriendly little airport into a facility more worthy of one of the country’s most dynamic small cities.
DIA and COS demonstrate the enduring value of major transportation infrastructure investments. Both projects required voter assent and both had fervent supporters and determined opponents. Had opponents prevailed, Denver and Colorado Springs would be very different places — and probably not in a good way.
So as we stumble into the third decade of the 21st century, we need to consider what new transportation projects could benefit our city and state for many decades to come.
These deals are really hard to do. As proof, consider that DIA was the last major airport built in the United States, and that urgent transportation projects throughout the country have been stalled for decades. For example, the early 20th century Hudson River railroad tunnels that connect New York City to New Jersey have needed replacement for at least 20 years, and especially since Superstorm Sandy flooded them in 2013. Replacement cost: $11 billion. The Trump administration won’t help fund them, and local sources can’t fully cover the expense. When/if the Dems control the national purse strings, New York may have a better shot, but they’ll still be competing for funding with scores of other worthy projects across the country.
The Feds contributed $500 million to DIA and federal funding from various sources has helped COS for many decades. Yet game-changing projects like DIA are an order of magnitude more difficult than maintenance, repair and rebuilding efforts such as the I-25 gap. And that was difficult enough!
But let’s go for the big one anyway. We need to respond to tomorrow’s needs, to the well-being and economic vitality of our state and region 30 years hence. We shouldn’t listen to the low-tax, low public investment naysayers of the right, nor should we pay any attention to the big-spending benefit-enhancing Bernies of the left.
Instead, we can help mitigate climate change, offer a transportation option that will delight Millennials, please geezers and consume other states with envy and regret; Front Range passenger rail.
Building a 173-mile single-track passenger rail system from Fort Collins to Pueblo would cost about $5.2 billion, and take at least a decade to build, according to estimates from the state’s Passenger Rail Commission, chaired by Colorado Springs City Councilor Jill Gaebler. That’s peanuts compared to delusional plans for Hyperloop or high-speed rail, and especially compared to $11 billion for 22 miles of Hudson River tunnels.
Conservative projections suggest that the Front Range’s population will grow from about 5 million now to 6.6 million in 2050. Build the railroad, and we won’t have to burden our descendants (and maybe ourselves) with California-level traffic congestion, taxes and road rage. The Feds may offer some token assistance, but we’ll pay most of it ourselves through some sort of regional tax.
It’s easy to be dismissive and skeptical about a passenger rail revival, as I have been in the past. And yeah, it’ll probably end up costing billions more and attracting fewer riders than estimated in its first years of operation. But unlike its northeastern counterparts, it’ll be new, fast, safe and reliable. It’ll be cheaper, more comfortable and infinitely less stressful than commuting. And I know who’d love to join us for the first of many sustainable trips — not the silver-haired dinosaurs from the political Jurassic Age, but a dynamic, 30-year-old world celebrity.
Welcome aboard, Greta Thunberg!