The recession of 2008 hit not long after, which took the scapegoat spotlight off of RTD. But the transit authority was still stuck with a big rail plan and about half the money they needed to build it. They had two options. They could scrap their construction schedule and build one line at a time as tax revenues trickled in. Or they could get creative.
Bill Owens, the Republican governor at the time, wanted the first option, arguing that it was the responsible and economical way to go. Denver's mayor disagreed, arguing that the transit system was designed to bolster the region as a whole and not just the lucky areas that got their rail lines first.
The creative option won out. "The mayor said, 'No, we're going to build the whole goddamned thing at one time,' " says Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Group, a regional coalition that pushed for FasTracks for more than a decade.
That mayor, by the way, was John Hickenlooper, who was also the face of the voter campaign three years earlier to raise sales taxes for FasTracks. He is now Colorado's governor and a prominent national Democrat. Hickenlooper was one of many business and civic leaders in metro Denver who viewed mass transit as the key to making the city a major metropolitan force. They didn't want Denver to be prominent just in the United States. They wanted to compete with cities throughout the world. You need people movers for that, or businesses won't locate in your region.
That principle continues to be embraced by Hickenlooper's successors. City planners say that a transit network is the only way to foster denser populations, which are critical to a growing urban economy, without snarling up traffic.
"We need to embrace a culture of transit. Not just mass transit, but you see a lot of focus on bikes, bike sharing, and the like," says Paul Washington, executive director of Mayor Michael Hancock's office of economic development. "How we develop this city is in the spirit of sustainability and verticality. So we want to be a much more dense city and grow up rather than out."
City leaders also have the future of Denver in mind. Transit is the preferred method of transportation (along with bicycles) for young adults, a group that the city has aggressively and successfully courted. Denver is a top-tier destination for millennials, according to demographers. One thing millennials don't seem to want is to own cars. Even when they do own cars, they certainly don't want to commute in them.
Aside from California, rail transit in the West is a relatively new idea. Phoenix's light rail line became operational in 2008. The Las Vegas monorail, which is only 4 miles long, came online in 2004. The culture of these cities is built on cars. Denver residents think nothing of driving a few hours to the multiple mountain resorts nearby. Throughout the entire mountain West, the rural spaces between smaller towns and large metropolitan areas are vast. Even the Denver International Airport—the metro region's pride and joy—is in the middle of nowhere. It is 25 miles from downtown, surrounded by, well, a cow field.