A relatively small crack that appeared on U.S. Route 36 in last week has grown into an outright transit crisis for the entire Denver-Boulder corridor.
On Monday morning, eastbound vehicles had to be routed around the stretch near 104th Avenue in Westminster, exacerbating metro Denver’s existing traffic woes.
As I finally arrived at Union Station after my extended bus commute from Boulder, I hoped the region-wide headache would be the kick in the pants the Front Range needs prioritize improved public transit options for the North Denver Metro area in a timely manner.
It’s certainly a longshot, seeing as this snafu came mere weeks after the RTD confirmed it was decades behind schedule on the commuter rail line linking Boulder County to Denver’s Union Station.
Still, if there’s anything that could lead a major American metro area to reconsider its transit practices, it would be a migraine like this.
The Brooklyn Bridge
For most of Brooklyn’s early history, there was no bridge to Manhattan. People were fine with the dozens of ferry lines which carried goods, commuters and travelers across the East River.
But during the brutal winter of 1866-67, the river (really a tidal estuary) froze several times, choking ferry service and nearly bringing the proto-metropolis to its knees.
This was the catalyst for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge – an immutable part of the city’s landscape and a transit corridor much less prone to New York Harbor’s meteorological whimsies.
Obviously, the Front Range isn’t as screwed as New York was in January of 1867. The region’s civil servants are in overdrive working to get locals where they need to go. Furthermore, Route 36 is expected to re-open in a matter of days – not weeks or months.
Still, the situation belies the fragility of the Denver area’s highway system – a system long been widely regarded as out-of-date and overcrowded.
It’s also a good point for the region to think about a coherent approach to the local and global realities of the climate crisis and to reflect on the RTD, which turned 50 this month.
Apparently, the impacted portion of Route 36 was built on top of a drained lake. Recent heavy precipitation is at least partially to blame for the ongoing slippage.
Route 36 is far from the only way to get between the Boulder area and Denver, but it’s definitely the fastest, most direct one.
In addition to personal and commercial vehicles, the highway is also the main conduit for regional bus service – the only public transit option for Denver-bound commuters in towns like Longmont, Superior or Broomfield.
Because there’s no good alternative for Route 36 – like, for example, a nice new commuter rail line – everyone; including those who use the bus, those whose jobs are not transit-accessible and those who refuse to leave their cars at home, must suffer a collective, largely immitigable nightmare commute.
The environmental impacts of Colorado’s car culture are also noteworthy – probably more so than the current impact it’s having on commuter convenience.
Motor vehicles have contributed enormously to the Front Range’s ongoing air quality issues.
Furthermore, transportation counts for almost a quarter of Colorado’s current greenhouse gas emissions.
Therefore, encouraging commuters to use trains and buses or carpool will go a long way in bringing the state toward its goal of meaningfully reduced emissions.
The Regional Transportation District
In the late sixties, the RTD emerged in large part as a result of a strong wave of urbanist sentiment that swept through educated circles in Denver as planners tried to run highways through affluent historic neighborhoods on the city’s south and east sides.
The organization and its supporters hoped to bring a metropolitan, multi-modal transit system to the Denver area.
In some ways, the RTD has accomplished this. A high completion rate for the projects laid out in 2004’s FasTracks program and the A line from Downtown to the airport both stand as ringing successes.
Still, the system has spotty ridership and has under prioritized parts of Denver and its northern suburbs.
If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s that Colorado’s state legislators seem to be on the same page about the transit situation.
In April, they agreed to set aside more money for transit projects, but the $300 million allocated falls short of the state’s estimated $9 billion dollar transportation funding shortage.