From its very inception, Denver International (DEN) has been a noteworthy U.S. airport, but it recently joined the international big leagues with the addition of a rail connection and a striking on-airport hotel/transit center complex.
"All of the world's better airports offer some kind of mass-transit system," says Stu Williams, DEN's senior vice president of special projects. "Along with the hotel, it makes Denver an even more desirable place to fly into as well as a more attractive place to live and work. So it leads to more business, more passengers and more flights."
Last year, DEN served about 54 million passengers and was ranked the sixth-busiest airport in the United States. The new 23-mile rail connection and associated $582 million hotel/transit center are expected to boost airport and convention business by making ground transportation and accommodations more convenient for passengers.
Moreover, the new infrastructure is expected to spur millions of dollars in real-estate development along the rail line. And signs of an aerotropolis sprouting up around DEN already are emerging.
NEW RAIL LINE
DEN passengers can now travel to or from downtown Denver via electric train for $9 in about 37 minutes. The new public transit option is also a major benefit for many of the 35,000 employees who work at the airport.
The hotel and transit center, which is owned by the airport and operated by Westin, opened last November after about four years of construction. The new rail line, which began service in April, is operated by a public-private partnership between the city's Regional Transportation District and an investment group called Denver Transit Partners. DEN used General Aviation Fund revenue bonds to build the hotel and transit center, as well as the last 2,000 feet of rail-line infrastructure leading to the hotel complex.
The new airport/downtown rail line represents one leg of the $2.3 billion FasTracks expansion program that will eventually add 122 miles of lines to Denver's system. "The rail line provides a real convenience for travelers, who now can get into Denver's central business district very easily," says Williams. "It's important to the airport and to the traveling public, and it's also the responsible thing to do environmentally...because mass transit reduces the city's carbon footprint."
Combining the hotel and transit center into one facility is not only convenient for DEN customers, it is also environmentally strategic, because the integrated building occupies less space than two separate facilities. "It's a very synergistic situation that benefits everyone," Williams notes.
The 14-story hotel includes more than 500 soundproof rooms, 37,500 square feet of meeting/conference space and two ballrooms. The structure's sleek, swooping roofline offers an architectural nod to DEN's signature billowing tent peaks, and the largely glass-walled edifice provides vast views of the airport, city skyline and Rocky Mountains. Overall, the facility is expected to generate $1 million to $2 million per year for DEN the first five years, and possibly more after that.
"Keep in mind that we're designated as an enterprise agency within the city of Denver, which means the airport doesn't receive any tax dollars," Williams informs. "So we operate only on the revenues that we generate ourselves. The more revenue we generate, the more money we have to expand the airport and make it better."
The hotel and new rail connection were specifically designed to burnish Denver's standing as a premier destination for conventions, conference and meetings. The city's location-no more than a 31/2-hour flight from virtually anywhere in the continental United States-has always been an advantage, notes Williams. "By adding the conference center, it's now more convenient than ever to fly in, hold a meeting, stay overnight in a hotel and fly out," he remarks.
Ever since DEN opened in February 1995, officials had envisioned an airport-based hotel and a commuter rail line that would work in tandem with the city's other mass transit options, such as buses and light rail. The airport has long been served by buses, but the new rail service is more reliable in bad weather and isn't subject to traffic congestion, comments Tina Jaquez, public relations manager for Denver's Regional Transportation District.
Even though voters approved funding for the new rail line in 2004, construction didn't begin until 2010 because it took six years to complete the necessary environmental impact studies. The project was further delayed when revenues collected from the special sales tax that was implemented to raise funds for the project were lower than expected due to the nationwide economic recession, Jaquez adds.
The new rail service uses 66 Hyundai Rotem cars, each 85 feet long. Powered by over-head catenary electric lines, they run at a top speed of 79 miles per hour and are similar to those used on commuter lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The cars on the new line, known as the new University of Colorado A Line, run in pairs, each with capacity for 91 seated passengers and 79 standing passengers, for a grand total of 340 riders per pair. Trains run every 15 minutes during peak travel times and every 30 minutes from 3 to 5 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Ridership is expected to reach 18,600 passenger trips per day, Jaquez reports.
The cars and stations were designed for passenger convenience. All the stations feature level boarding to accommodate travelers with luggage and/or those with physical challenges. Inside the trains, luggage racks are located near doors to make it easier for passengers with large bags, golf clubs, skis, etc.
Convenience Was Key
The transit center's 800-foot-long loading platform is located on the "ground floor" of the complex, under the Westin Hotel. After passengers disembark, they're just a few hundred feet and a five-story escalator ride away from the airport's TSA checkpoint, located in DEN's central Jeppesen Terminal. (Regional Transportation District buses stop at the opposite side of the same platform.)
"The idea was to get the transit center as close as possible to the terminal," Williams explains. "If you get off the train and aren't checking luggage, you can get to the security checkpoint in about five minutes-you're that close to the terminal."
There is a checked bag drop location near the loading platform for passengers flying on United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. And six self-service kiosks allow passengers flying on United, Southwest, British Airways, Lufthansa and Icelandair to print their own boarding passes. Travelers can also purchase train tickets on the platform from vending machines that accept cash or credit cards.
DEN hired Gresham, Smith and Partners to help travelers to find the new hotel/transit center, both before and after construction. "Large projects always have a ripple effect on an airport's wayfinding system that extends well beyond their physical footprints, and the new transit center and hotel at DEN is a great example," says Jim Harding, spokesman for the architectural and engineering firm. "The ripple effect of these two projects extended throughout the main terminal. All the wayfinding was upgraded with a new sign overlay to guide customers to the new facilities."
Because the hotel was completed last year, before the transit center opened, wayfinding changes had to be executed in phases. "We intentionally left space open to add messages about the transit center when it opened in 2016," explains Harding.
According to local sources, the hotel and new rail line are already living up to economic expectations. In a move that city officials believe could jumpstart aerotropolis development, Panasonic Enterprise Solutions is currently building a headquarters complex just outside the airport. Located near the first train station stop west of the airport, the facility is expected to generate $82 million of economic impact within the region and eventually spur the creation of up to 400 jobs.
The new mass transit connection, plus the appeal of building in a very walkable, livable area, helped encourage Panasonic to locate in Denver, says Heath Montgomery, a media relations spokesman for DEN. The company reportedly chose Denver over 22 other major U.S. cities.
"This is a major world player in the technology industry that otherwise might have gone to a city like Dallas, San Francisco or Chicago," Williams notes. "The rail line truly represents a corridor of opportunity."
More information about DEN's hotel/transit center can be found in this article from our January/February 2016 issue: