Denver looks to change bus transit on Colfax Avenue

City, residents hope new transit plan increases safety, lessens traffic woes

Posted 10/4/18

Colfax Avenue has a reputation: It’s a hub for local music venues and home to longtime Denver restaurants. It’s the longest commercial street in the U.S. The urban myth that Playboy magazine once …

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Denver looks to change bus transit on Colfax Avenue

City, residents hope new transit plan increases safety, lessens traffic woes

Posted

Colfax Avenue has a reputation: It’s a hub for local music venues and home to longtime Denver restaurants. It’s the longest commercial street in the U.S. The urban myth that Playboy magazine once called it “the longest, wickedest street in America” has been woven into the street’s culture.

Pedestrian safety, however, is not necessarily a word that comes to mind when you think of Colfax.

In fact, the road that stretches the entire length of the city, from its western border with Lakewood to the Aurora border in the east, is one of Denver’s worst streets for pedestrian-involved accidents, according to Jill Lacontore, executive director of Walk Denver, a pedestrian advocacy group that works with communities and city officials to find ways to make areas more friendly to walkers.

Colfax is part of the city’s high-injury network, in which 5 percent of the streets in Denver account for about 50 percent of the fatalities, according to the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, released in 2016 to help reduce pedestrian death and injury related to traffic accidents. Other streets in the network are Federal and Colorado boulevards.

Lacontore, also chair of the city’s Vision Zero Coalition, has been attending community task force meetings held by the city to talk about the Colfax plan.

The problem with Colfax, Lacontore said, is that it is designed like a highway and people often drive at high speeds when traffic allows for that. More often than not, Colfax is congested and traffic is forced onto side streets that aren’t built to handle the same amount of cars, she said.

City officials hope its Colfax Corridor Connections plan — which will add designated bus lanes and higher frequency to routes to encourage more people to ride mass transit —will provide a solution.

“You’re reducing significantly the amount of space for people in private automobiles and having a traffic-calming effect on the remaining vehicle lanes, but still moving a lot of people,” Lacontore said.

From plans to reality

The Colfax Corridor Connections plan has been in the works for the past six years, said Heather Burke, a public information specialist with the Denver Department of Public Works. The city started by researching different methods to help ease traffic on the busy street. And as part of a task force on the project, city planners worked with community members to hear about their hopes for a safer Colfax.

Almost the entire length of Colfax is lined with restaurants and bars as well as local and national businesses. The busier portions of Colfax, such as the area of the street near the Capitol building, is six lanes wide.

“East Colfax is one of Denver’s busiest corridors, and it’s only expected to get more congested,” Burke said. “Denver Public Works is trying to stay ahead of that growth and move more people along the corridor.”

The plan covers about 10 miles of Colfax, from Interstate 25 east to Interstate 225 in Aurora.

Because of the centralized bus lanes, there will be changes to turn lanes on Colfax. Left turns would only be allowed at intersections with a turn signal, for example. In addition to making a designated bus lane on Colfax, the plan would help pedestrians by creating a center median in some areas, where pedestrians can safely wait to cross the street. The median area would also have new bus stops.

“It’s literally going to save lives,” Lacontore said.

The city recently wrapped up the planning phase of Colfax Corridor Connections. And planners will start the formal design process next year, Burke said.

Once the design phase is completed, the city will need to seek funding for the project.

The city hasn’t worked out the price tag for the full project yet, but one city official said at a community task force meeting at East High School on Aug. 8 that a very base estimate would be about $200 million. In November 2017, some funding was secured when voters approved $55 million toward the bus rapid-transit project as part of the city’s General Obligation Bond.

The city is projecting that construction will begin between 2020 and 2021.

Improving bus routes in Denver

Lacontore and her husband, Frank, who is president of the Colfax Ave Business Improvement District (BID), have been keeping a close eye on the planning process for Colfax. Lacontore has been working on projects in the area such as the high-injury network and a pedestrian safety event with Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods. The BID covers the area from East 14th Avenue over to East 16th Avenue, following Grant Street east to Josephine Street. The couple also lives near Colfax.

The Lacontores hope the project can serve as an example for other major — and dangerous — streets in Denver such as Federal and Colorado boulevards.

“This will be the first time that we’ll really have some high-quality transit that connects neighborhoods within Denver,” Lacontore said.

The plan calls for improvements to bus services such as higher-frequency routes, increasing bus arrivals to every five minutes during peak travel times and every 30 minutes overnight. The new plan would also have multi-door boarding, off-board fare payment and real-time arrival information. Because of updates to transit on Colfax, the plan would require a new bus fleet, an official said during the Aug. 8 task force meeting.

Officials from Regional Transportation District, the organization in Colorado responsible for transit, did not respond to a request for comment from Life on Capitol Hill.

City data shows demand for public transit is growing.

The 15 and 15L routes on Colfax — which run from Union Station downtown to Broadway before following Colfax east into Aurora — are among the most used in the city with about 22,000 riders on weekdays. The 15L is the limited version of the route, which starts at the Decatuar-Federal Station before going up East Colfax. By 2035, the city estimated those routes would have about 50,000 riders a day, according to the Colfax Corridor Connection website.

Dealing with construction

Frank said he is working with the city to help businesses through the project’s construction phase.

While the plan does eliminate some parking, Franks said the improved transit will help bring more people in without cars. Safer access for pedestrians will also mean more people walking on the streets and, hopefully, visiting those businesses.

Although construction will be a burden to businesses, better traffic, safety and access will outweigh those costs, Frank said. “There’s no way that that’s going to get better by doing nothing.”

Still, Kaewyn Picard, co-owner of Herbs and Arts at 2015 E. Colfax Ave., is concerned about the impact construction will have on her business.

The Capitol Hill area already has too little parking and eliminating even more may cause issues, she said. “It’s going to be a hot mess.”

As a mother, she also worries about bus stops in the middle of the street rather than along the sides of the road. She wouldn’t want her children waiting in the middle of Colfax, she said, and also noted that location would be difficult for elderly or disabled persons.

Despite the traffic issues, Picard said she loves having her shop on Colfax.

Herbs and Arts sells healing herbs and oils, as well as books and items for spiritual healing. It has been on Colfax for 24 years. The diversity of people that walk along Colfax every day make having a business there special, Picard said.

“People who live in this area are here because they want to engage,” she said.

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