‘R’ IS FOR ROLLING: How Aurora’s light rail link became the train that could

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AURORA | The Regional Transportation District’s long-awaited R Line to Aurora is *finally* rolling ‘round the bend. But way back in the beginning, it was hard to even imagine an end of the line.

Things began smoothly enough in 2004 when metro-area voters approved the $4.7 billion FasTracks plan, which included a much-anticipated connecting rail line between a major light-rail artery through the south corridor and the then-yet-to-be-built A Line from Downtown Denver to the University of Colorado Aschutz Medical Campus and, ultimately, Denver International Airport.

But it wasn’t long before enthusiasm waned under the weight of a sputtering economy, inaccurate cost and revenue projections, and the always-nagging question: What to do with about 650 prairie dogs living along what was then referred to as the Interstate 225 rail line?

Nonetheless, obstacles couldn’t stop the little train that could, and as long-time RTD board member Tom Tobiassen noted in the early stages of the line, in 2012: “Time is money, and if we hold up the project … we’re going to be burning through dollars and the risk of not being able to get it completed on time.”

And, so, “on time” it was — well, sort of. While the R Line is technically a few months behind the earliest estimates for completion, it could be worse: at least Aurora’s not Boulder, which due to a lack of funding could be seeing a train line around the same time flying cars are finally invented.

The R Line will now join the W Line to Golden, the much-touted-if-not-beleaguered A Line to the airport, and the short-but-sweet B Line to Westminster as the new rails on the block, with others like the G Line to Wheat Ridge and the N Line to Northglenn/Thornton soon to follow suit.

Here’s a brief timeline of events leading up to this glut of public transportation spanning the metro area, and the R Line specifically, courtesy of RTD (rtd-fastracks.com):

• The first plans for mass transit in Denver were published in the early 1970s, driven by a dream to connect — through existing commercial rail lines — Denver and Golden, or what is commonly known as the West Corridor.

• No major project can be without a major study. RTD’s major investment study for the West Corridor was wrapped up in 1997, and concluded that LRT, or light rail transit, provided the best bang for the buck, and that the old Associated Railroad and Denver Interurban Transit Line adjacent to 13th Avenue provided the most “transportation benefit,” with the fewest negative impacts.

• Meanwhile, more relevant to the R Line, Denver-area voters in 1999 approved the T-REX project, which included reconstruction of I-225 between I-25 and Parker Road in Aurora, including the Southeast Corridor light rail and its H Line extension — the first glimmer of rail transit, even if it existed on the very outskirts of town.

That light rail line opened in November 2006.

• In 2001, RTD kicked of a study to consider positive and negative impacts of the Denver-to-Golden line. The environmental impact statement helped illuminate for RTD the technical, environmental and community challenges associated with light rail as it pertained to the West Corridor.

• Studies aside, 2004 was the year when it really started coming together, as taxpayers approved the FasTracks initiative, which would provide cents on $10 of retail tax toward six total rapid transit corridors (including the I-225 line), three extensions of existing corridors, the revamp of Union Station, thousands more parking spaces and an extended bus feeder system.

• Final designs began a year later and lasted through 2008, around the same time the economy started to spiral down and material costs skyrocketed up. Subsequent changes in plans also meant more studies to fulfill environmental impact mandates.

• But as the economy rebounded and Kiewit Infrastructure Company successfully pitched a proposal in 2012, full funding was secured. The rest is, as they say, history.

MORE ON THE R LINE AND TRANSIT:

‘R’ IS FOR ROLLING: R Line trek to VA hospital in Aurora could pose challenge for some veterans

‘R’ IS FOR ROLLING: The R Line is a train of thought, Aurora. Go catch it

‘R’ IS FOR ROLLING: How Aurora’s light rail link became the train that could

‘R’ IS FOR ROLLING: New light rail R line brings light rail to much of Aurora — VIDEO TRAINERS

PERRY: ‘R’ is ready to ride, but the rest of the metro mass-transit system is off track