Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
As the city’s long-delayed G Line opens, locals have high hopes that the commuter rail service can ease traffic and boost transit-oriented housing.
DENVER, CO— Bob Martin had a day off on Tuesday, so he decided to spend it riding back and forth on the city’s long-awaited new commuter rail service, the G Line. When I found him standing on a train platform in the Denver suburb of Arvada, he looked a little stunned. “That was like being in a Star Trek movie—so smooth,” he said of the new train. “I’ve lived in Denver all my life, and never thought I’d live long enough to see this happen.”
The G Line, which opened last weekend, connects downtown Denver with the northwest suburbs of Arvada, Adams County, and Wheat Ridge. Riding the 11-mile, seven-station line end-to-end takes 27 minutes. In its first year, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) is hoping the G will carry 9,000 passengers a day, and by 2025, a projected 13,000. Starting May 11, it will cost $3 to ride, but until then, it’s free to try out.
Ask any Denver resident and they’ll tell you: It’s about time this thing got moving.
The roots of the G Line—a.k.a. the Gold Line—date back to 2004, when Denver voters approved a flurry of regional transportation investments known as FasTracks. That $4.7 billion pledge to add 122 miles of commuter, light rail, and bus rapid transit lines across the Denver region has helped the Mile High City build the eighth-largest rail system in the United States. In 2011, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood approved a $1 billion grant to cover half of the $2 billion it would take to build both the G line and another commuter rail. He signed the check symbolically at the G Line’s groundbreaking.
Initially, RTD promised to open the line in fall of 2016, in partnership with the privately owned Denver Transit Partners. But progress soon stalled, thanks to technical difficulties causing timing issues at crossing gates, which could have been dangerous for pedestrians. That problem also affected Denver’s University of Colorado A Line, a six-station rail route that opened in April 2016 and connects downtown with Denver International Airport. But RTD was given a waiver to continue its operations.
The G ride is indeed remarkably smooth, as Bob Martin told me. And there are a lot of them: Between 6 am and 6:30 pm, trains arrive at 15-minute intervals. That all-day frequency sets it apart from lots of other commuter-focused rail systems, which tend to provide less service outside of morning and evening rush periods. That could help it attract a broader pool of riders from residents of northwest suburbs—commuters whose treks into the city have grown longer as the metro area has grown more crowded.
Denver has been developing like mad over the past several years: the city itself added more than 100,000 new residents since 2010, and its sprawling suburbs are surging even faster, thanks in part to the “Green Rush” that followed Colorado’s 2012 cannabis legalization. The 2004 FasTrack expansion—which was supposed to cost $4.7 billion but ballooned closer to $8 billion—was designed in part to prepare this typically car-centric Western metropolis for a more densely populated future.
People around Denver still drive a lot, but the big rail expansion is still a work-in-progress: The city’s current 86.5-mile-long network is about to add several similarly overdue extensions on its southeastern E, F, and R Lines, now scheduled to open on May 19, according to the Denver Post.
A free ride on the G offers a glimpse of just how much of the suburban development along the line is transit-oriented. New housing—including plenty of the area’s signature multi-hued apartment complexes in various stages of completion—raced by my window as I rode northwest.
The Denver Post has an interactive map that outlines what construction the G has wrought, and what it has yet to bring. The first stop, on 41st and Fox in downtown Denver, is adjacent to an area nicknamed Fox Island, “because of its sequestration from the rest of the city” via highways and rail lines, the Post writes. But after rezoning rules were approved in February, the area will see the construction of 120 micro-apartments. There’s also a Home Depot on the way—a project that’s being challenged in a Change.org petition, which argues that “big box retail” is auto-centric and contra to the spirit of transit-oriented, affordable growth. (As a compromise, Home Depot says it could build a few apartments on the roof.)
Near the Clear Creek and Federal stop, more than a thousand residential units will soon crop up as part of the Clear Creek Transit Village. Another 20-acre plot right next to the station is being eyed for more housing, if its current owners vacate it.
Riders on the train had mixed feelings about this construction boom. “The stops along the way, they’re going to develop them to death,” said Bonnie, a Denver native who lives in Golden (and declined to give her last name).
But Amy Miller, who moved to Arvada about a year ago, says that part of the calculus behind her relocation was the promise of the new line. “We based where we live now on the train,” she said.
Small businesses along the line are also expecting to cash in. In Olde Town Arvada, a tidy pocket of walkable brewpubs, shops, and restaurants, private investment has already injected $400 million since 2006, and multifamily units have multiplied. A new station-side parking lot—which the Post calls the G Line’s “most ambitious”—hugs one side of the station, built to hold 400 park-and-ride vehicles. On the other side is a mural, which features the G line happily chugging into town, presumably bringing bar-hoppers and shoppers along with it.
Free tickets have been enough to attract new riders rolling to and from downtown. On the sun-splashed opening weekend, crowds of first-time G Liners were downing microbrews in the bars along Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, where servers reported banner crowds of curious “train tourists.”
Aboard the train, kids traveling with their grandparents bounded up and down the car, marveling at the conductor announcements. When the train stopped at Wheat Ridge and Ward, the end of the line, I met a pair who’d become friends through the social networking site Meetup.com. After a pizza outing, they had split off from their group, deciding to ride the G Line together from Union Station to the end of the line. We waited—only 15 minutes!—for the next G, which took us back to Alvada. There, we chatted and wandered into a wacky breakfast-cereal bar, a German bakery, and a coffee shop. Then, together, we rode right back to Union Station, where we all parted ways.
Other riders weren’t there for spontaneous whimsy. They were using, and planning to continue to use, the commuter line for its intended purpose: Getting to and from the city, fast.
Bonnie was on her third G Line ride, coming back from an art class, and said she’d use it again soon to go to the Denver Performing Arts theater instead of taking the car and paying $12 for parking. When I asked her whether her friends were as gung-ho as she, Bonnie said no. “They’re all gas drivers.”
Miller, who lives in Arvada, had taken the bus to work downtown that morning. But she had left the office early to get back to her kids, who were sick; and she’d wanted to avoid the bus, which gets caught in traffic and doesn’t show up reliably. Without the G to take her home, she said, “I would have had to take an Uber.”