AURORA | This time last year, Tom Tobiassen kept reassuring people the Interstate 225 light-rail line would be built sometime soon. In reality, though, he wasn’t so confident himself.
On March 1, Aurora became one hole in the dirt closer to getting its own light-rail line, and Tobiassen can hardly believe how much has changed since last year.
“It fell into place, and it fell into place so quickly,” said Tobiassen, a Regional Transportation District board member who represents part of Aurora.
After years of planning and financial setbacks, transportation officials and city lawmakers gathered March 1 to celebrate the beginning of construction for Aurora’s FasTracks light-rail line.
About 250 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony at the future City Center light-rail station, where guest speakers underscored the importance of the $350 million project.
Transportation officials said 250 employees are working on the construction project, which will open to the public in 2016.
“This is what our city needs, this is what our metro area needs, and it’s our hope that development will go hand in hand with what happens in the construction of this great light-rail line,” Hogan said.
The light-rail line will include eight stations and will run along the east side of I-225 before crossing over and through the site of the former Fitzsimons Army Hospital. The corridor is a total of 10.5 miles long, and a mix of commercial and residential Transit Oriented Development projects are planned for the light-rail stations.
Last summer, RTD received an unsolicited bid from Kiewit Infrastructure Co. to build out the rail line. The cash-strapped RTD found enough money to pay for the project because it received a $280 million federal loan in December for another rail line that helped free enough money for the entire Aurora segment.
RTD’s 2012 revenue projections from the sales tax increase that voters approved in 2004 were also higher than RTD’s recent projections for the year, allowing RTD to begin construction.
Aurora’s FasTracks line is part of a multi-billion dollar transit expansion that includes 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit and 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations, according to RTD.
The entire RTD FasTracks system is currently about 70 percent complete, and when the Aurora rail line is open in 2016, the system will be closer to the goal of connecting eight counties through public rail transportation, Washington said.
“This is a great, giant step toward fulfilling the commitment to completing the entire FasTracks investment,” he said.
Stations along the I-225 corridor include: the existing Nine Mile station, the Iliff station, which is currently under construction, the Florida station, the Aurora City Center Station, the Second Avenue and Abilene Station, the 13th Avenue Station, the Colfax Station, the Montview Station, and the Peoria/Smith Station, which will connect to the East Rail Line that will run between Denver Union Station and Denver International Airport.
The light-rail line will be a boon for travelers coming to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus said Bruce Benson, president of the University of
Benson has seen the campus tremendously grow over the past decade, also reinforcing the need for access to public transit. More than 25,000 people are at the campus daily and that number is projected to double in the next 10 years, he said.
“This is terribly important for us,” he said at the groundbreaking. “It will provide vital access to one of the top academic medical centers in the world.”
There’s a lot of work to be done in the next three years, though, and Tobiassen says patience will be needed while orange cones sprout up around the city in the coming weeks.
“We’re trying to reach out to as many (homeowners’ associations) as possible to let them know this is going to be happen and to be patient,” Tobiassen said. “It’ll change the face of Aurora in terms of moving people around.”
Aurora resident Dala Giffin, a resident of the Mission Viejo neighborhood who attended the groundbreaking event, said she’s an avid public transit user and is hopeful the light-rail line will be completed earlier than 2016.
She said it’s encouraging to see all parts of the city, from the Anschutz Medical Campus to small business owners and lawmakers who are in full support of the light-rail line.
“I think we all see the need and we see the advantage of it,” she said.
When it’s complete, the light-rail line will also be helpful for those who are blind or are physically disabled, she said.
“There are so many people who will have the ability for independent living because they do have transit that’s going to help them out,” she said.
RTD board member Claudia Folska, who was elected to the board in November and is blind, said the start of construction on the light rail line isn’t only important for Aurora.
“We’re ushering in what I think of as the new American dream,” she said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “It’s new urbanism around a first-class, multi-modal transportation system that will connect communities throughout the region.”
Developers have been buzzing with anticipation for the project since last year when RTD announced it had enough money to move forward with the project.
Greenwood Village-based land owner David Erb is now on track to build the development project at Abilene Station he had just about lost all hope for in 2009.
Erb’s vision for the area around the light-rail station includes five, four-story apartment and condominium buildings with about 770 units, for a total build-out cost of about $76 million.
Each design plan calls for different developments to complement commercial and residential projects.
For example, the Iliff Station area plan calls for a central park, the Florida Station plan identifies a high-density housing district south of Florida Avenue, and the Peoria/Smith Station plan includes the design for a series of public parks between the existing Sand Creek Regional Greenway and the station.
But city officials and developers alike have to keep in mind that these grandiose plans might not come to fruition for years or even decades, said Bill Sirois, senior manager of Transit-Oriented Development and planning coordination for the Regional Transportation District.
“The thing we need to be careful of is realizing this is a long-term investment and a long-term goal,” he said in January.
It takes a long time for TOD projects of this scope to be complete because they usually require public-private partnerships, he said.
And, what city officials have in mind for development now could very well change in the future. Flexibility is key.
“Every station is unique from an access standpoint, from a market standpoint, and from a city resource standpoint,” he said.
Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]