A thick line ran right through Frederic “Jerry” Conover’s neighborhood.
The line on a 1965 metro Denver transportation planning map carved the path of a potential freeway through Denver’s historic East 6th Avenue corridor. Conover, then a 31-year-old attorney who lived at 6th and Franklin Street, took one look at the map and exploded.
“You’ve got to be … kidding me,” he said, recalling his feelings from more than 50 years ago during a recent interview on the patio of his seventh-floor condo in LoDo. “These nut cases will ruin not only my backyard but all of central and east Denver.”
Conover’s visceral reaction to the idea of a high-speed freeway running through some of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods — Country Club, Congress Park, Cheesman Park, Hilltop, Montclair — was soon shared by others. Many others. They formed a group, Preserve Our Way of Urban Residence. They held meetings, distributed petitions, wrote papers, nudged agency heads, contacted reporters and pushed politicians.
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver PostRetired attorney Jerry Conover poses for a portrait on his balcony overlooking downtown Denver on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Conover was instrumental in the development of RTD. As a resident of the Cheesman Park neighborhood in the 1960s, Conover led a group of citizens to voice their objections to freeway developments that would have been built on Larimer and 6th Avenue going eastbound.
What started out as a battle against a web of proposed freeways in metro Denver during the height of the mid-1960s interstate building boom had by the end of the decade become a full-fledged effort to bring to the region a much-needed alternative to the automobile.
“If we were going to be a city — the economic hub of an eight-state region — we needed a mobility system like those used by the great cities of the world,” said Albert Melcher, a young civil engineer at the time and a key figure in pushing for one large regional transit system in and around Denver to replace the fragmented and failing municipal bus systems that operated in the metro area.
It took several years, but by the time the Colorado General Assembly convened for its session in 1969, the push for transit had inexorable momentum behind it. Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 309 on June 7 of that year, and the Regional Transportation District was officially born on July 1.
Melcher and Conover are quick to point out that they were just two of many players who brought about the creation of RTD 50 years ago. But the combative spirit they exhibited in trying to slow the auto-centric environment that was rapidly gripping the city at the time, Conover said, is still relevant as battles over highway and road expansions continue to rage today.
“It was fun, we were idealistic and … we brought them to their knees,” Conover said of the transportation planners who half a century ago saw more road lanes as the answer to mounting traffic congestion in and around a fast-growing Denver.
“We kept our ties on”
The resistance to a 6th Avenue freeway in the 1960s wasn’t the first time people objected to new roads. Fierce fights erupted 20 years earlier over the construction of the Valley Highway, now known as Interstate 25, according to Dianna Litvak, a former historian for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Another battle was waged over plans for what would become Interstate 70 through Denver — with residents of the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and Berkeley neighborhoods complaining it would divide their communities.
State transportation planners prevailed in both cases.
But by the time focus shifted to Denver’s east side, there had been many urban highway battles across the country, Litvak said, and new environmental regulations were beginning to guide road-building projects, giving road opponents a bit more leverage against transportation agencies.
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver PostDENVER, CO – JUNE 26: Bert Melcher poses for a portrait at his condo’s offices on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Melcher played a vital role in the development of RTD. “It was a lot of darn work starting something that was going to grow into a big project. We didn’t even own a pencil and paper. Until we got a staff the board of directors, we were the staff. We were doing everything. Answering the phones, you name it,” said Melcher at his home. Melcher worked heavily on FasTracks and is proud of his involvement in the project. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Melcher, now 88 and living in an Aurora retirement community, said he had kept an eye on the flare-ups over I-70 during the late 1950s and early ’60s.
He knew that if he and his neighbors were going to effectively block a 6th Avenue freeway, they would have to be highly engaged and organized. It didn’t hurt, he said, that the demographics of east Denver were marked by a well-heeled, white-collar population.
“Some of those people had good political connections — that was a difference from the I-70 area,” he said.
Conover, who is two years Melcher’s junior, said the opposition didn’t stage rallies or march around with signs. They engaged with the people in power to change minds and influence policy.
“We made sure we got the stakeholders involved,” he said. “We kept our ties on.”
He admits resistance to the highway plan started as a “not in my backyard” exercise but quickly went metro-wide. The map that was published in The Denver Post in January 1965 also showed a “Columbine Freeway” running from Commerce City to Columbine Valley and new highways supplanting large sections of both Wadsworth Boulevard and Quebec Street.
“This was a community problem,” Conover said.
Conover, who served as co-chair of Preserve Our Way of Urban Residence (POWUR), sat down with neighbor John Moore, another attorney active in the opposition, and penned “Cities are for People” that summer. While the bulk of the paper focused on the ills of unfettered freeway-building, its final pages turned to the topic that would define the group’s legacy.
“… Visionary transportation planning will require dependence on mass transit if we are to preserve the vitality of our cities,” stated the report.
Melcher said “Cities are for People” was a powerful pro-transit missive. It included a policy statement from Denver Mayor Tom Currigan in which the mayor said “a solution to the transportation problem cannot be achieved solely by a network of freeways.”
Melcher said the report made it into the hands of “key people” in the region, without which “the next step would not have occurred.”
Working high-level connections
Even though transportation officials abandoned their ambitious freeway blueprint, words alone wouldn’t create transit in metro Denver. Old fashioned legwork would be needed, Melcher said, in the form of door-to-door canvassing and petitioning.
And high-level influence would be critical too, he said.
Melcher became a commissioner for the Department of Highways — “the lone tree-hugger” on the powerful board. Conover joined the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Denver Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, where he and others advocated for “density nodes” in mass-transit corridors — a precursor to the oft-mentioned transit-oriented development of today.
That advisory committee’s report eventually caught the attention of John Kelly, head of the Denver Chamber of Commerce, who began the push for a bill to create a regional transit agency — a move described by Melcher as a “very progressive action” at the time.
Wallace “Wally” Pulliam was a research analyst for the Colorado legislative council in 1969, when the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 309 establishing RTD.
“It was kind of exciting that we were creating something that had not been in Colorado,” said Pulliam, who with the council helped craft the bill’s language.
Provided by the Regional Transportation DistrictPedestrians stand near an RTD bus in this undated file photo.
Big ideas, slow progress
But creating a new agency merely led to the next set of roadblocks to transit in Colorado. RTD had no buses, no routes and no passengers — and the nascent district had a meager $185,000 budget to work with in 1970.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 309 had put in place a five-year deadline for RTD to get a voter-approved tax to fund the agency. If RTD failed to secure a source of money, according to the new law, it would be dissolved.
“The challenge was getting the work done — there was so much to do and we had so little time,” said Jim Graebner, RTD’s first transportation engineer. “The number of Saturdays I spent in the office with everybody else was incredible. It was exciting as hell.”
Committees were formed, an executive director was chosen and routes were laid out, including many of the critical corridors down which light rail and commuter rail trains roll today. But none of that work would come to fruition without money from the voters.
“The voters are the ones that make the decision,” Graebner said.
On Sept. 7, 1973, voters in the seven-county district authorized RTD to issue $425 million in revenue bonds backed by a half-percent sales tax. The margin of approval was 57 percent to 43 percent.
With money in hand, RTD began buying up the aging municipal bus systems that served Denver and its suburbs, such as Denver Metro Transit, Evergreen Transit, Northglenn Suburban and the Longmont Mini. The agency also toyed with futuristic concepts such as Personal Rapid Transit, which bore similarities to the then-popular PeopleMover attraction at Disneyland.
Denver Post fileU.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., alights from RTD bus Wednesday, January 18, 1978 at 16th and Arapahoe streets in downtown Denver, 10 minutes late for a meeting with reporters to promote transit alternatives for commuters. She called for five volunteers to bus, jog, bicycle, ride a motorbike and balloon from outlying areas into down town on February 13. She carried balloons with new slogan: Make Denver the Clean City of the Plains.
In fact, consultants hired by RTD suggested Denver could be the proving ground for Personal Rapid Transit. They sketched out a 100-mile system of “fixed guideways” on which driverless vehicles holding a maximum of 12 people would zip all around the metro area. Much of the system would be elevated, monorail-style, with an underground subway segment downtown.
It was never built.
“We were a little early,” said Melcher, who sat on the RTD board for its first four years.
RTD had rail in its plans from the beginning, but an attempt to get federal money from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in 1976 to develop rail transit in and around Denver was rejected. Four years later, RTD voters shot down a proposal to raise the sales tax to build a 73-mile light-rail system.
At the end of the 1970s, RTD had 700 buses plying the streets of the district. Light rail wouldn’t come to Denver for another 15 years.
Provided by Regional Transportation DistrictA Mall Ride shuttle bus operates on the 16th Street Mall in Denver in 1987.
Regional is key
RTD board chairman Doug Tisdale marvels at what the district has become over the last half century — a 2,342-square-mile area serving more than 3 million people, with 172 miles of light rail, 40 miles of commuter rail and 1,026 buses. There are about 100 million boardings per year systemwide.
That sweeping, cross-jurisdictional reach is RTD’s greatest strength, said Tisdale, who remembers riding an early RTD bus in the 1970s from his Westminster home to his law clerk job downtown.
“It gives us a true regional approach,” he said.
Tisdale tips his hat to Bert Melcher, Jerry Conover and the hundreds of others, many long gone, who helped turn what was then an unlikely aspiration in a car-crazy city into reality.
“I truly marvel at how we have been able to grow, and I’m thankful to those who envisioned it and to those who supported it,” he said. “It always takes people with vision to make great things happen.”
Celebrating RTD’s 50th
RTD is inviting riders to join staff for giveaways on its 50th birthday. Rider appreciation events will take place Monday at the following stations:
6:30 to 8:30 a.m.: Littleton/Mineral; U.S. 36 & Broomfield; U.S. 36 & Sheridan; Thornton Park-n-Ride; Olde Town Arvada Park-n-Ride and garage; Federal Center; Bergen Park Park-n-Ride; and U.S. 36 & Table Mesa Park-n-Ride.
4 to 6 p.m.: I-25 & Broadway; 40th Ave. & Airport Blvd.-Gateway Park; Sheridan; Englewood; Nine Mile; Iliff; and Lincoln.
Then RTD throws itself an official birthday party on July 12, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., at Union Station. The celebration will include food trucks, tunes from 1969, speakers and family-friendly activities.