BACK ON TRACK: RTD moving rail alignment after CU raises concerns about interference from trains

“There won’t be any delay at this point, as far as we know,” said RTD board member Tom Tobiassen, whose district covers Aurora.

AURORA | Aurora’s light rail project is on track to open by 2016 despite its realignment near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, RTD board members said June 25.

Regional Transportation District board members voted 14 to 1 at their meeting to approve the realignment, requiring that it not affect the project budget or construction schedule.

“There won’t be any delay at this point, as far as we know,” said RTD board member Tom Tobiassen, whose district covers Aurora.

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Old plans called for the light rail to travel north along Interstate 225 and turn west onto Montview Boulevard near the University of Colorado Hospital’s health sciences buildings. Now, the station will be redesigned and moved a half-mile north from the campus, along Fitzsimons Parkway, to protect sensitive medical equipment from electromagnetic interference.

No light rail construction activity has been started on the line near the campus yet. Construction isn’t slated to begin on the Montview Boulevard light rail until spring 2014, according to RTD’s website.

RTD staff and Kiewit Infrastructure Corp. plan to have a new alignment and station site designed by the end of the year so construction can begin on schedule next year.

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan and Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado, spoke in support of the realignment at the RTD meeting. Benson said the school is committed to paying for a shuttle bus to transport light rail users from the new station at Fitzsimons Parkway to the Anschutz Medical Campus. He said it’s important that the light rail be relocated further away from the campus to protect current and future medical equipment from vibration impacts and electromagnetic interference.

“It’s only been recently that we’ve begun to understand the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

In 2008, the University of Colorado Hospital conducted two studies that showed its high-tech research and medical equipment could be affected by the electromagnetic field generated by Aurora’s future light rail line.

According to that report, vibration from the light rail could interfere with equipment at the Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Building near the intersection of Montview Boulevard and Tucson Way. Also, devices including nuclear magnetic resonance machines, MRI machines and electron microscopes could be affected by the light rail’s electromagnetic field.

In 2009, the Regional Transportation District conducted its own environmental assessment, which also showed a need for mitigation strategies to protect the hospital’s equipment.

Campus officials have said their concerns with the light rail were put on hold after the studies were complete because RTD was going through hard financial times and no one knew when the Aurora light rail line would be built.

Some RTD board members criticized CU officials for encouraging RTD to move forward with the original alignment plan last year and then asking them in May to move it away from the campus.

“They’re a premier research facility, yet they can’t do their own research,” said RTD board member Gary Lasater, whose district covers south Aurora.

The cost to keep the light rail traveling along Montview Boulevard would have been about $60 million, because RTD would have had to build structures to mitigate the effects of electromagnetic interference. That could compromise the entire FasTracks project, said RTD General Manager Phil Washington.

“If we go down the road of mitigation, we know there will be a delay,” he said.

He said he’s confident that the light rail change can be done within the project construction budget of $350 million.

RTD board member Natalie Menten, whose district covers Lakewood, Wheat Ridge and Golden, voted against the realignment.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or 

  • denvoran

    The Fitzsimons Campus is one of the very few, if only, truly pedestrian-friendly pockets in the nearly 150 square miles of Aurora – a place where it is actually easier and more comfortable to walk around than drive from point A to point B. It is these kind of places where transit really works, and arguably the only places where major investments such as light rail should be located.

    It is extremely shortsighted to take the ONLY station in Aurora that is located in a walkable precinct and relegate it to the very fringe of the campus one-half of a mile away. With this move, potential ridership will drop significantly: having ample parking available closer to their destinations, most people destined to the campus would rather walk a few blocks from a garage than trek half a mile. Never mind that there will be dedicated shuttle: light rail riders will have already taken a bus or made a drive to the station they originated from – will they really endure TWO transfers if they can avoid it?

    This issue is nothing new, as rail lines access universities and research centers the world over. RTD need only learn from the recent experience of the Central Corridor light rail being built through the University of Minnesota – its alignment stayed where it should be, in the center of the campus.

    This decision will be followed by decades of regret, as Aurora’s chance for a truly transit-oriented district and the region’s opportunity to reap air quality, congestion reduction and quality of life benefits by having a major employment center truly accessible by transit are wasted in the name of expediency. The cost of lost benefits and that of running a shuttle year after year far outweigh any mitigation expenditures associated with the Montview alignment.

    While the RTD Board, the University, and Aurora congratulate themselves on finding a quick solution, they have actually introduced a significant handicap into the regional transit system and done their constituents, employees, patients and citizens a huge disfavor.