THE LONG WALK: When Aurora VA hospital opens, how will disabled vets find their way to the front door?

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AURORA | With the future VA Hospital in Aurora nearly complete and on track to open in a little over a year, advocates are again asking for a pedestrian bridge to the new hospital from the Aurora East Colfax Avenue light rail station — a stop on the Aurora light rail R Line that opens later this year.

on Monday Nov. 07, 2016 at Colfax Station. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel“You can’t drop a guy with a walker or a wheelchair on that location at Potomac and have him walk 800 feet into the hospital,” said longtime patient advocate and Korean War veteran Bernie Rogoff. He said it would be dangerous for veterans to walk from the elevated light rail station at Colfax Avenue and Potomac Street to the main entrance of the future Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Health Care System on Wheeling Street.

Rogoff started advocating for the pedestrian bridge in 2013, when the replacement hospital was projected to cost about $800 million and expected to start seeing patients in 2015. Today, costs have ballooned to more than $1 billion and it is set to open in 2018.

When completed, the 184-bed veterans hospital will hold two inpatient buildings, two clinic buildings, a diagnostic and treatment center, a research building, concourse, energy center to power the building efficiently, as well as three parking garages for staff and visitors with 2,242 spaces.

Rogoff said he worked with the Greeley-based bridge construction company Big R Bridge to develop a formal proposal for recommendation to the city and the VA hospital. He said their estimate for the bridge in 2013 was as much as $7.5 million.

Pete Nieman, a sales manager with Big R Bridge, said he has had no contact with city, RTD or VA officials since that discussion three years ago. But he said he would be open to following up on the project if there is still interest.

The VA didn’t include plans for any sort of bridge for veterans to get from the light rail to the hospital because when the design plans for the hospital were drafted years ago, RTD officials said the I-225 light rail line wasn’t funded and wouldn’t be built for decades.

Dan Warvi, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Healthcare system that includes the Denver VA Hospital, said veterans who have special transportation needs to the Denver hospital either use the nonprofit Disabled Veterans of America’s transportation network, their county veterans service office vehicles, or the RTD Access-a-Ride.  Aurora city officials deferred to RTD when asked about the potential for a pedestrian bridge, with no further comment on the issue.

According to Warvi, DAV vans transported 2,360 veterans from Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs to the Denver VA hospital this year. The vans transported 1,070 veterans from Alamosa, Pueblo, Lamar and Salida to the Denver VA hospital.

Tom Tobiassen, outgoing RTD District F Board Member for Aurora, said he was optimistic veterans could advocate for a bridge once the hospital opens, but it would be a challenge.

“It is very unfortunate that the VA hospital planners elected early on to not include the close proximity of the light rail station in their design plan,” he said. “Retrofitting a bridge design near the VA Hospital will be difficult since there is not much area to land the bridge on the hospital side of the road.”

One development moving forward since 2013 that will help get veterans a little closer to their destination is a light rail shuttle run by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, adjacent to the future VA hospital.

The shuttle will take veterans to the VA Hospital from RTD’s Fitzsimons Station, which is one stop away from the Colfax station. The Fitzsimons light rail station is parallel to Tollgate Creek on Fitzsimons Parkway, and will be on the north side of Fitzsimons and just north of the hospital and the Anschutz Medical Campus. It will take less than five minutes to get to the hospital from that stop via shuttle, according to Anschutz campus officials.

David Turnquist, an associate vice chancellor with Facilities Management at Anschutz, said the first stop for that shuttle will drop veterans off around 500 feet from the VA hospital entrance at the less busy intersection of Wheeling and East 17th Place. The shuttle will also make stops throughout the Anschutz campus, according to Turnquist, and take about 15 minutes to make its full trip through the campus. 

“This is the closest we can get to the entrance without veering off the route and adding time,” Turnquist said. “If we add more time to the route, it will require more resources, more buses, and more drivers. The route we have in place gives close proximity to entry points for each entity, but does not have front door delivery for anyone.”

Turnquist said Anschutz plans on operating three shuttles from the Fitzsimons Station during peak travel times in the morning and later afternoons during the week. He said two shuttles will be operating at less busy times during the week and one shuttle will operate on weekends and holidays.

The Anschutz shuttle will have six stops total, and Turnquist said bus shelters will be available at each stop that will include digital signage for when the next shuttle bus is scheduled to arrive.

“We will also have an application that people can use on their phones to show where the buses are and when they should arrive at the various stops,” he said.

He said the shuttle service should be operating when the R Line is set to open later this year, a year in advance of the hospital’s opening.

According to 2015 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 23 percent of Colorado’s 409,000 veterans receive a disability compensation for their service.