Sitting on a skateboard at City Center Station with her earbuds blasting,
Makaylaki Olson waited quietly for her northbound train under a bright Friday morning sun.
While she considers the train crucial to her metro life, fewer people feel the same way than transit officials predicted.
The 20-year-old Montana transplant said the train line through Aurora has been crucial for her since she moved to town. Like a growing number of millennials, Olson doesn’t have a car, so the R Line makes getting around easy. Hopping on and seeing where the train can take her is also a fun way to kill some time, she said.
When she’s back in Montana — which like much of the mountain west lacks the sort of public transit options Aurora now boasts — she said she feels a little “trapped.”
But even though she lives close by and is a regular on the R Line, Olson admitted she has the same problem many mass transit users in Aurora and around the country often face.
“I have a habit of missing the ones I need,” she said with a grin, hustling to board a departing train that left the City Center Station a little before noon.
For riders like Olson, the line — which cuts through the center of Aurora, linking commuters to the airport, Downtown Denver and the Tech Center — has been a huge hit.
It makes getting to and from work easier for many. Since it opened in February 2017 the R Line has helped thousands get downtown for sporting events and linked others to the Denver International Airport-bound A Line. For others like Olson, the connectivity the train provides was a huge reason why they opted to make Aurora their home.
But the long-awaited and pricey line hasn’t been a hit with nearly as many riders as Regional Transportation District leaders hoped — at least not yet.
On Fridays, the busiest day of the week for the line and a day with extended hours, the R Line is averaging about daily 7,300 riders. From Monday to Thursday, the line is luring only daily 6,200.
Last year, when the $687-million line opened, RTD’s boss said they would be pulling in 12,000 riders each day by now.
The line is averaging only a hair better than half that on most days.
“We have not met projected ridership,” RTD spokeswoman Tina Jacquez said bluntly last week.
Now, 14 months into operations, transit officials are banking on a new veterans hospital near East Colfax Avenue and Interstate 225, continued nearby residential and retail development — something city officials say has been a bright spot along the tracks even if many projects started later than they’d hoped — and a beefed up messaging campaign to hit those projections. The aim is to avoid the sort of frequency cuts considered last year. Those cuts were deeply unpopular with Aurora residents and city leaders. RTD officials eventually backed off the idea last fall.
Still, with ridership hovering well below projections, talk of chopping some train service through Aurora is certain to pop up again.
A slow start
Even before the R Line snaked its way along I-225, the City Center Station at East Alameda Avenue and South Sable Boulevard was a bustling transit hub. The bus terminal on the east side of Sable sits just south of the Aurora Municipal Center, across the street from the Town Center at Aurora mall and to the west of Arapahoe County government’s booming Aurora satellite location. Aurora bus riders can park their car or walk here and hop dozens of different buses shuttling them to the farthest reaches of the metro area.
When the trains started rolling down Sable last year, they simply added to that already impressive connectivity.
But as Olson and a dozen or so riders waited on trains here last week, the hub was hardly packed. The parking lot had ample empty spots, and there was more than enough space on the handful of benches for riders who wanted to snag a seat until their train arrived. The trains that came and went picked up a couple riders each time, and each had their pick of seats in lightly-crowded train cars.
According to RTD statistics, this station ranks 44th out of the agency’s 59 train stations. The 1,300 riders the station averages daily doesn’t come close to other suburban stations like Englewood with 5,400, downtown Littleton with 3,500 and Belleview Station in Greenwood Village with 2,800.
And forget about rivaling the Denver hubs. Broadway and I-25, Colfax and Auraria and 16th Street all average better than 10,000 riders a day. Union Station, RTD’s busiest location and one in the heart of Downtown Denver, tops 30,000 riders a day.
Aurora’s busiest station so far is the East Florida Avenue station, where a pedestrian bridge over I-225 easily connects riders to the always-busy Medical Center of Aurora. That station averages 2,400 riders a day and ranks 26th among RTD’s stations. Most of Aurora’s stations rank near dead last.
Jacquez said there are a lot of reasons for the R Line coming well short of those initial ridership projections.
Part of the issue, she said, is that the agency may have simply over-estimated how many people would ride the R Line, though they had cause for optimism.
A big reason is the delay-plagued Veteran’s Affairs hospital at Colfax and I-225. That hospital was supposed to open years ago but is way past its scheduled opening and grossly over budget. When it finally opens next year, the VA hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus will be a short distance from R-Line stops at Colfax and near Fitzsimons Parkway. Those stops are already close to a few huge employment centers on the campus in UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado and University of Colorado School of Medicine. But the VA hospital sits on the campus’ eastern edge, closer to the R Line than any of those.
Jacquez said when RTD made their initial estimates, they were banking on the VA hospital being open by now. The hospital will bring thousands of workers to Aurora everyday and Jacquez said RTD envisioned the light rail line being a prime option for those commuters.
“That is one major employment center that is not up and running yet,” she said.
Development along the line has also been slower than RTD hoped. Jacquez said the years of delay after voters approved the 2004 Fastracks project — which was to include lines like the R Line extending all across the metro area — meant some developers were leery to launch their projects. Then, when the project started in earnest in 2012, it took some developers by surprise, she said. Many of those projects are underway today, but the residents who will one day live a short walk from R Line stations don’t live there just yet.
The transit agency also might not have gotten the message out about the R Line as well as they may have with other lines, she said. The initial marketing campaign included the same push RTD used for other metro area lines, she said, but they did it in a tighter timeframe than they did with others.
Delayed development dynamo
Back in 2007, three years after voters said yes to Fastracks, the future of train service into Aurora looked grim. A sudden spike in gas prices after the voter-approved tax hike sent construction costs skyrocketing, and that meant delays across the project.
Still, at Aurora city hall, planners toiled away, laying the groundwork for massive residential and retail developments that would one day dot the line.
“Even at that time — well before the line was open and funded — we were planning it,” said Andrea Amonick, the city’s development services/Aurora Urban Renewal Authority manager.
Plenty of people had their doubts about whether the line would ever happen, but the potential effect train service could have on the city’s development scene wasn’t lost on Amonick’s staff.
And they knew early on that for the line to change the landscape of Aurora, for it to spark the kind of transit-oriented development city officials craved, the line couldn’t just hug I-225.
Amonick said city planners made the conscious decision to make sure the line veered from the highway and ran along some main streets through the heart of town.
That’s why as the train heads north along I-225, it makes a sharp right at East Exposition Avenue, zooming east until it hits Sable. From there the line heads north through City Center before it darts west again and goes under the highway before resuming its northward journey almost to I-70.
The odd shape the line makes as it veers over and under the highway and several blocks east into the heart of Aurora made sure it hit development hubs at City Center and again near East 2nd Avenue and Abilene Street.
It also motors along the Anschutz campus, though not right through it. Initial plans for the line to head down Montview Boulevard were scrapped amid concerns about rumbling trains causing problems for delicate medical equipment. Instead, the line hugs Fitzsimons Parkway along the campus’ eastern and northern edges.
That route has helped launch several residential TOD projects near Iliff Station and Anschutz.
At City Center, crews started work this spring on the Parkside at City Centre, a development on the northeast corner of Alameda and Sable that, when it is complete in a couple years, will include 216 multi-family units and 35,000 square feet of retail space.
Kyle Forti, a spokesman for Northstar Commercial Partners, the developer behind the project, said the company bought the land two years ago and has viewed it as ripe for development, in part because of the easy access to light rail. Being just a few miles from Anschutz didn’t hurt, either, Forti said, but the project is right on the rail line, which makes it particularly enticing for developers.
Still, many developers were slow to warm to TOD projects along the R Line. The rail line had been mired in delays for years so even when it was clear the line would happen, development didn’t take off as quickly as city officials had hoped.
Amonick said she didn’t see that hesitation by developers coming.
“I was surprised that they had a difficult time wrapping their head around what might happen at those stations,” she said.
Amonick previously worked on the East Coast where rail transit is more popular than it is in the west. There, she said developers were more willing to hop on TOD projects when they were still in the development phase. Here, she said developers seemed to want to see construction of the line happening before they were willing to invest in the project.
Tom Tobiassen, who represented Aurora on RTD’S Board of Directors, said he saw that reticence among developers, too.
“It seemed like no developers wanted to touch it till there was actually a train in place,” he said.
Bob Broom, who now represents Aurora on the RTD board and previously served on Aurora City Council, said it made some sense for developers to want to wait until the rail line was in before they launched their own projects. From a practical standpoint, building an apartment complex adjacent to a rail line that is also under construction is tough.
“It’s really difficult to start a construction project inside of a construction project,” he said.
But the hesitation largely disappeared once the trains started rolling.
Amonick said developers who may have shied away from the R Line years ago now want in.
“Now that the train is open and everyone can see it, there is much more interest in activity and physical development,” Amonick said.
Problem is, there aren’t many spots along the R Line where there aren’t at least development plans in place, she said.
Still, the slow initial pace means some of the new developments — including a couple new apartment buildings near Iliff Station and Anschutz — are still under construction. And while those projects might account for a few construction workers hopping the train to get to the job site each day, it’s nothing compared to the crush of passengers RTD and city officials are banking on when the projects finally have residents.
Other projects are even further away from actually being homes. Huge chunks of land near City Center remain undeveloped, and developable sites near the East 2nd Avenue stop are also largely vacant.
Amonick said development plans are in the works for the bulk of the available land along the R Line. Some might be a few years out — large-scale projects don’t happen overnight, she noted — but they will happen.
“The problem is that all of those units are not open,” she said.
More than 1,000 residential units near the line are under construction right now, she said.
Once those are complete, she said it stands to reason that ridership along the R Line will spike.
“We expect them to draw folks who have a desire to live close to transit and can walk to the transit,” she said. “That’s going to put more people there.”
Finally rolling, at least
On a frigid Friday morning last February, city big wigs, public transit advocates and others gathered under a tent near the R Line to celebrate its opening.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, who has been in and out of city hall for decades and watched as the project hit repeated delays, took to the lectern to address the crowd.
And he couldn’t help but note the it’s-actually-finally-happening nature of the chilly event.
“A lot of people said it would be a cold day in…” Hogan said, pausing for comedic effect. “…February…”
The grand plans of Fastracks haven’t fully taken shape now 14 years after the ballot question. The southern reaches into Highlands Ranch haven’t materialized, and neither has the northern rail line that was supposed to connect Boulder County to the metro.
Tobiassen, who was on the RTD board during much of the R Line’s construction, said he knows there are seething residents on the north and south end of town who still want the lines they voted for.
That was part of what made last year’s opening such a big moment, he said. Finally, after all of those delays, Aurora was actually getting the line residents and leaders had clamored for.
“We are fortunate,” he said.
Now that the line is here, adding those residential units nearby will go a long way toward making Aurora a less car-centric community, he said.
“Now let’s get serious about building high-density, transit orient development along the route,” he said.
And while ridership has been low so far, Tobiassen said that could change with a few tweaks.
One option would be to extend the H Line — which runs all the way to Downtown Denver — further into Aurora.
Now, if a rider catches the train at any stop north of East Florida Avenue, they have to transfer from that R Line train to an H Line if they want to go into Denver. That adds significant time for riders boarding at several stations in the heart of Aurora, including City Center and Colfax.
If the H Line extended to those stops, riders wouldn’t have to change trains to get downtown, a convenience that he said could help lure some riders.
Tobiassen said the line also faces challenges at Alameda and again on the northern end of the line on Peoria. At those spots, where the trains motor along tracks at the street level, trains don’t have priority.
That means trains have to wait at red lights just like cars do.
Broom agreed, saying if the city of Aurora would instead give the trains priority, they might be more attractive to riders.
Right now, sitting on a train means hitting a red light much like you would behind the wheel.
“If you are trying to catch the train to the airport, it’s really frustrating to sit there,” Broom said.
No matter what tweaks RTD opts for, Broom said he expects cuts to the R Line will be discussed in the coming months if ridership doesn’t spike. When that happens, Broom said he plans to push for patience. The transit agency allowed the lines to the western suburbs to stagger along for years with low ridership before making cuts, he said, and Aurora’s line deserves the same consideration.
“Given the magnitude of the investment, we should give the R Line a similar amount of time before we start making cuts,” he said.
Some critics have said RTD’s light rail fares are too high.
This spring, RTD said it has a 25-member working group looking at tweaking fares. The group said the agency should add a low-income pass and extend discounts to young riders. The low-income pass would discount passes for riders making 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines by 40 percent. For right now, for a family of four, that would be about $45,000. For a single person, incomes of $22,000 or less would qualify. The group said this option would essentially be an extension of RTD’s nonprofit program. One option the group looked at — and was eliminated — would have raised the base fair price to pay for the low-income pass.
Jacquez said RTD is reviewing everything, not just the R Line. The aim is to make the entire system run as efficiently as possible, she said, from trains to buses.
And no matter what happens, she said it’s not like RTD would consider scrapping the R. The tracks and the infrastructure are there and will stay, it’s just a matter of figuring how best to use it.
Going forward, she said the agency expects the new developments and the VA hospital to help boost ridership. A new marketing campaign is aimed at making it clear that the line isn’t just good for getting from one Aurora spot to another — though it certainly excels at that. Jacquez said they want to make clear the line can serve as a connector to the broader metro area, linking Aurora residents with the A Line to the airport at Peoria, or the H Line into Downtown.
That initial 12,000 riders each day projection may have been overly optimistic, but Jacquez said she is confident ridership will be better than it is today.
“We might not be there yet,” she said. “But we will get there.”