DENVER — It's the only highway into and out of the third busiest airport in the world and yet, nearly 30 years after it was built, Peña Boulevard to and from Denver International Airport is still only two lanes most of the way in either direction.
“Traffic can be really, really bad,” said Hailey Hunt, who was picking up her mom at the airport on Wednesday. “It can be a little stressful for sure, especially in the morning, around noon, and during the evening rush.”
“I don’t know because I don’t even go on Peña,” said Bonnie Shinault, who is a skycap at DIA. “I ride the train.”
Now, there’s a $5 million study underway to examine the expansion of the highway, a study that has sparked heated debate over the merits and potential impacts of highway expansion.
“I think definitely expanding it would probably be better,” Hunt said.
“Oh yeah. They should absolutely expand it,” said Paul Taylor, a pilot for Southwest who lives in Green Valley Ranch.
“Our city plans don’t call for expanding highways, they call for expanding transportation,” said former mayoral candidate and current executive director of Green Latinos Ian Thomas Tafoya.
The time it takes to get to and from the airport on Peña can vary widely.
“I’ve heard of people taking two or three hours to get out of here because sometimes the accidents can block both lanes and it’s just a standstill,” Taylor said.
DIA wants you to weigh in on the future of Peña Boulevard
Denver7 timed it at midday on Wednesday and it took about 14 minutes from I-70 to the airport.
While we were on the road, many were on the train running parallel to Peña.
“It saves me a lot of gas instead of driving way out here and then paying for parking,” Shinault said.
“I don’t have to drive,” said Rafe Shohet who was taking the train home. “I don’t have to park. I can skip the traffic. And it drops me off at Union Station where I can take a really cheap Uber back to my apartment. Just being able to count on that for when I get back late at night or if I’m heading to the airport early in the morning. It’s reliable.”
Taylor says it's not just more air travelers contributing to the congestion of Peña, but also the growth of surrounding neighborhoods and business districts.
“Just the whole area,” Taylor said. “It’s expanding a lot.”
Advocates for mass transit like Tafoya say there are better options.
“There’s no other thing we should invest in other than duel-tracking this train and getting as many people here on public transit,” Tafoya said. “It’s good for the climate, it’s good for yourself and your own mental health. There are less crashes; I mean, all the way around it’s good for everyone.”
And some, like the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, take it a step further.
“Japan built the first high-speed rail system in 1964,” said Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. “All the struggling and suffering we do to try to get places is not mandatory. We could be getting places quick and easy all the time.”
Kunz says from 1949 to 2017, the U.S. spent $2 trillion on highways, $800 billion on aviation, and just $4 billion on high-speed rail.
“Compare that to China which has spent $1 trillion on high-speed rail,” Kunz said. “You get what you pay for. That’s so obvious right here in the U.S. We’ve reached the end of the line. More highways can’t do much more for us.”
For now, the future of the thoroughfare is still up in the air.
“People deserve to have options,” Tafoya said.
A team with DIA is currently working on the Peña Boulevard Transportation and Mobility Master Plan Study — also known as the Peña Study — and is in need of public input. You can learn more about the Peña Study, and provide feedback, on the Denver International Airport’s website.