Denver, CO

Protecting downtown Denver from rail disasters: Ortega’s last stand

David Heitz
Trains carrying flammable materials chug through the heart of downtown Denver every day.Photo byCity and County of Denver

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Denver City Council member Debbie Ortega will get to pitch her railroad safety bill to the full council, but not because it went over well in committee.

Council members on the Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to move the bill to the full council floor, but some said they would not support it there.

Ortega has served many years on the City Council. Her time on the council has come to an end due to term limits. She unsuccessfully ran for mayor this year. She has tried to pass a railroad safety ordinance since 2014.

In 2018, a voluntary system whereby developers could insulate their buildings from rail disasters passed the council with fanfare. However, nobody ever participated in the voluntary program, Ortega said. “We tried the voluntary approach. It didn’t work.”

Evacuation plans, reinforcing buildings

Ortega said she learned in 2014 that trains carrying dangerous and flammable chemicals often stop right in the middle of downtown Denver, for hours at a time. The federal government governs railroads so there’s not a lot the city can do. But it can impose regulations for developments located near the tracks.

That’s what Ortega wants to do with a proposed ordinance. The regulation would require developers to make sure their projects are safe. That means reinforcing buildings, installing fire hydrants, having evacuation plans, or requiring other safety measures for developments located within 100 feet of the railroad right-of-way.

Risk of accidents increasing

At a previous committee meeting, city staff shared data that shows the risk of rail accidents is increasing. In 2021, 4% of rail cars carried hazardous materials through Denver. By 2025, that number will be 14%. Due to a new railway coming through Denver by 2025, 1,061 cars per day will pass through the Mile-high City compared to 280 cars per day in 2021.

The trains are getting longer, the data shows. In 2021, 38 daily freight trains passed though Denver. By 2025 the number will be 45 daily trains. Sometimes an entire train will carry petroleum, according to city staff.

City agencies oppose bill

According to committee chairperson Amanda Sandoval, four city agencies wrote letters opposing Ortega’s bill. She said the fire department’s concerns that the bill does not adequately address a downtown evacuation plan rang serious with her. She said she has understood the need for an evacuation plan ever since a car derailed in Denver in 2012 at the BNSF railyard and ended up in someone’s back yard.

Laura Aldrete, executive director of community planning and development, said she must consider other menaces to Denver safety besides freight trains. She quoted data that shows overdose deaths, suicides and vehicular deaths plague the city the most. She emphasized only one city in the world has created an ordinance like the one Ortega proposes, and it's a town in Canada with a different form of government than Denver.

‘We don’t feel this bill is it’

Council member Paul Kashmann asked the leaders of departments who oppose the bill whether Denver already is doing enough to protect downtown residents and office dwellers against rail disasters. They said they believe the city is doing enough.

Nicholas Williams of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said he is “not trying to be trivial or dismissive” but added enforcement of such a bill “is not the best use of resources at this time” and “We don’t feel this is the right bill at the right time to align with our priorities.”

Kashmann remarked it sounds like perhaps more does need to be done about safety. “There is always going to be room for more work on safety … but we don’t feel this bill is it right now,” Williams said.

Developer speaks out

Rhys Duggan, developer of the planned River Mile project in Denver, said he is frustrated. He opposes Ortega’s proposed bill. “We’re trying to build a $9 billion project in the City and County of Denver, and nobody has told me that what I’ve done in my plan addresses the concerns adequately.”

He said it’s not fair to pin everything on developers. “We hear and we read, and we talk so much about affordable housing and then we just get layers and layers and layers of regulation. Why isn’t the railway paying for this? Why isn’t the city paying for this?”

The council likely will consider Ortega's bill at its June 12 meeting.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

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