The new members of the Denver City Council will start their first meeting with a juicy question: Does Peña Boulevard need $93.5 million of work near Denver International Airport?
Airport officials say that they need to add lanes and rebuild ramps to improve the flow of traffic near the terminal. But the project has run into questions and criticism from transit advocates, who said it would encourage driving and hurt ridership of the nearby A Line train.
And it’s a fight that could continue for years to come: Airport officials already are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of future expansions of the 12-mile road that connects Denver to its isolated airport on the plains.
At a meeting on Monday night, council members pushed for a greater transit commitment from the airport. Several seemed supportive of the road project, but the doubts were enough to delay approval.
“Why would widening the road, expediting the ease of travel via vehicle, encourage greater use of the A Line?” asked Councilman Rafael Espinoza. He successfully delayed the vote until next week, when five new members will take seats on the 13-member body.
Airport officials argued back, saying that this first section of the project isn’t just serving cars, but also shuttles and buses.
“Simply calling it a widening project is disingenuous,” said Rachel Marion, director of government affairs for the airport. “I think our goal is to encourage multiple different forms of transportation.”
The initial project includes new ramps and interchanges that are meant to improve the flow of buses, shuttles and personal automobiles around the airport. It would widen sections of the final approach to nine lanes, and it includes a new holding lot for taxis and ride-share drivers with electric charging facilities.
The first phase would be paid for by airport revenues, which are limited to airport uses.
Future phases, though, would be focused mostly on delivering automobile traffic to the airport and the “aerotropolis” development area. An airport transportation study describes another $300 million of potential construction to expand the entirety of Peña Boulevard from four to six lanes; those future phases haven’t been approved yet.
Some sections of Peña could see a 61% increase in auto traffic by 2040, according to a traffic study commissioned by the airport. That would be driven in part by a major increase in jobs, from about 18,000 today to a projected 43,000, alongside the “aerotropolis” and other development plans.
The long-term Peña project could cost an estimated $400 million, including the first phase. For comparison, the Interstate 70 widening is expected to cost $1.2 billion.
Airport officials seemed surprised by the initial anti-auto criticism, saying they’d been more focused on a workforce plan for the project. On Monday, they defended their approach to airport access.
“We’ve invested $350 million into the transit center for the A Line,” Marion said. RTD ridership to the airport has doubled, to 15,773 riders per day, since the A Line’s opening.
The airport also is planning a bicycling network, plus infrastructure around the 61st and Peña rail station, Marion said. But it’s not allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration to pump more money into the A Line — say, to lower fares.
Marion said the airport was committed to working with transit advocates on their goals.
Other council members asked the airport for more explicit transit goals.
“At this point, it doesn’t sound like DEN has specific goals for ride-share shift,” said Councilman Paul Kashmann. Council President Jolon Clark asked for a promise of more community engagement on future projects.
Construction on the initial phase is scheduled for January 2020 through May 2022.