RTD wanted the G Line to reach downtown Golden, but that didn’t happen. Now a free shuttle is ending

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The end of the line for RTD’s G Line, at the Wheat Ridge / Ward Road Station. Nov. 21, 2023.

After he lost his driver’s license, Tony Huffman learned to use his feet, bicycle, and Regional Transportation District (RTD) buses and trains to get to the many construction sites he works around the sprawling Denver area.

“It’s a pain in the butt,” Huffman said, adding that it routinely takes more than two hours to get across the metro. 

To get to a recent job in downtown Golden, Huffman would take RTD’s G Line commuter train to its end-of-the-line station in Wheat Ridge. From there, he’d then call a Lyft for the last seven miles of the journey. That typically added another 30 minutes and $30 to his work commute. 

Huffman’s costly, stitched-together commutes are the result of officials and planners in Front Range cities treating non-car transportation as an afterthought for generations. However, his commute to and from home could’ve been vastly easier in a slightly alternative reality: Decades-old plans called for the G Line to extend all the way from Denver into downtown Golden.

That never happened, though, and RTD has no current plans to extend the line. And now, a free grant-funded on-demand shuttle between the G Line end-of-line station and downtown Golden is poised to run out of money and will shut down today, Nov. 30, 2023. 

“Well that’s a bummer,” said Huffman, who wasn’t aware the free shuttle even existed. 

An RTD rail station in downtown Golden, with its walkable streets, patio-happy restaurants, and popular creek-front trails, seems like a slam-dunk in 2023. It would be an exception to many of RTD’s other rail stations, which tend to be park-and-rides in industrial areas or tucked next to highways. 

That’s not how it turned out. Here’s why. 

Before the G Line and the “Gold Line,” planners pitched the “Beer Line.”

In the early 1990s, RTD and an upstart rail group pitched commuter rail lines between Denver, Arvada, and downtown Golden they dubbed the “Beer Line” because they would’ve rolled past the massive Coors brewery on existing freight rail tracks parallel to Highway 58.

“We had referred to it by the railroaders’ nickname, the Beer Line, and Arvadans were outraged,” said Robert Rynerson, a retired RTD staffer who worked on the study.

The name was soon changed to the “Gold Line” and eventually just the G Line. In 2000, as RTD was revving up for its mega FasTracks rail expansion ballot measure, the agency completed a more rigorous study that also called for rail service from Denver’s Union Station to downtown Golden. 

Light Rail Transit Improvement plan map
Courtesy RTD
This map from a 2000 study of the G Line shows it extending all the way into downtown Golden in a second phase — which has yet to happen.

But crucially, the study split the project into two phases. The FasTracks program, which voters approved in 2004, only included the first phase from Union Station to Ward Road in Wheat Ridge. While there was a nascent not-in-my-backyard force pushing to keep the G Line out of downtown Golden, key players from that time said they weren't a factor.

“It wasn't organized. It wasn't a groundswell,” RTD’s former assistant general manager of planning, Bill Van Meter, said of Golden NIMBYs from that era. “I can't support stating that influenced RTD’s decision.”

Rather, Golden city leaders wanted as much transit service as RTD could offer, said Mike Bestor, who was Golden’s city manager from 1993 to 2015. They even wanted to have the W Line and the G Line connect in downtown Golden and make a big loop, he said. 

“It’d be wonderful,” he said before noting that the W and G lines ended up being two different types of trains — light and commuter rail, respectively. “So, that will never happen.” 

The real reason the G Line stops at Ward Road is a predictable one: money. 

RTD was counting on federal dollars to build the G Line and a handful of other FasTracks rail lines. But RTD’s ridership forecast suggested that the full G Line wouldn’t be cost-effective enough to land a key federal grant, Van Meter said. 

“Frankly, you couldn’t justify it,” he said.

That’s because the downtown Golden of the 1990s wasn’t the destination it is today. Downtown was half empty when he arrived in 1993, Bestor said. A 1997 Rocky Mountain News story described a years-long effort to transform it from a “down-and-out strip of bars to a viable shopping and dining district.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An RTD bus passes under Golden’s iconic welcome sign, Nov. 21, 2023. There was a time when an RTD rail line was part of the regional transit agency’s growth plan, but those days are over.

That effort was successful — eventually. 

“Now, people are complaining about too many tourists,” he said. “But at the time, too many tourists was the farthest thought from our minds.”

Golden was able to convince RTD to extend the W Line to the Jefferson County Government Center — aka the Taj Mahal — on Golden’s fringe. But the W Line cannibalized the case for extending the G Line into downtown Golden, Van Meter said.

So now, the city and other big stakeholders are counting on buses and shuttles to move people to and around downtown.

RTD’s new 17 bus connects downtown Golden to the Federal Center every 15 minutes at peak times. The School of Mines, the City of Golden, and the West Corridor Transportation Management Association all partnered recently to launch free “Ore Cart” shuttles around downtown and to the end-of-the-line W and G Line stations. 

“Though service started slow, the word started to spread and service ramped up really nicely,” said Mike Hughes, executive director of the West Corridor TMA, which landed grants to fund the G Line shuttle. “We've had some good results.”

RTD's Arvada Ridge Station, on the G Line. Nov. 21, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
RTD's Arvada Ridge Station, on the G Line. Nov. 21, 2023.

The four shuttle routes have had some 25,000 rides since mid-June, said Matt Wempe, a transportation planner for the city of Golden. The city will reconfigure its remaining routes when the G Line shuttle ends at the end of November — and possibly expand into new areas of the city too. 

“We're also hearing from the community that they're very much appreciative of having options for getting to the grocery store, to the doctor's office, and things like that,” Wempe said.

But the city shuttles won’t keep serving the end-of-the-line G Line station. And that rail line won’t be extended anytime soon, either.

Golden would love to see RTD extend the G Line into downtown, Wempe said. And RTD even owns the tracks all the way into downtown Golden.

But when BNSF Railway agreed to sell the G Line corridor to RTD in 2010 for $31.7 million, it kept the legal right to use the section between Ward Road and downtown Golden “forever,” RTD spokesperson Pauline Haberman wrote in an email.

“BNSF still owns, maintains and operates the crossings, infrastructure, etc., within the property” through a permanent easement, she said, adding that, “It was an all or nothing deal for the Gold Line.”

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Tony Huffman waits for a G Line train at the Ward Road station in Wheat Ridge on Nov. 9, 2023.

BNSF did not respond to a request for comment. 

On top of that, RTD’s expansion days are largely behind it. The current leadership is focused on staffing up and maintaining its existing system — and not an extension of the G Line. 

“An extension of the G Line was not part of the FasTracks initiative and would require a great deal of planning and investment,” Haberman said. 

For Tony Huffman, the construction worker, that’s just as well. He recently got his driver’s license back and said he won’t be riding RTD much anymore.