Each weekday morning, thousands of Denver metro area light rail commuters settle into their seats and enjoy a smooth comfortable ride that takes them to work. Their rides aboard the Regional Transportation District’s streamline delivery system are quick, affordable and environmentally friendly.
This all-metro transportation evolution began eight years ago when voters decided light rail was the only smart decision for 21st century metro area transportation.
A 5.4 mile light rail system that delivered commuters to Denver and northeast neighborhoods begun in 1994 proved so successful that expansion was an easy decision for RTD.
In 2004, RTD presented an elaborate spider web of light and commuter rail choices, along with buses, to district voters. They approved a $4.7 billion dollar referendum designed to create a multi-modal transportation system to serve metro area commuters all across the nation’s 16th most populous metropolitan area.
The plan was bold and imaginative. It called for nearly 120 miles of rail service and 18 miles of express bus service. The hub for this elaborate makeover would be Denver’s Union Station. From there, light and commuter rail spokes would ultimately stretch into every region of the metro area allowing commuters to park their cars and hitch a ride. And it would all be done by 2013.
But, so far, the eight-spoke wheel designed to provide light and commuter rail service to commuters across the eight county RTD region has come up short, pleasing some of its customers — those in the south, west and northeast — while leaving a significant number of others — those in the north and northwest — with the feeling of buyer’s remorse.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” says Pauletta Tonilas, RTD’s FasTracks spokesperson. “There are parts of the project that are on the schedule later than others.”
Tonilas says in an ideal world, RTD would be on the schedule that it initially sold to the public when it first presented the metro area transportation plan nearly nine years ago. Everyone who expected to be riding the rails soon would be. But things happened.
Tonilas says in no particular order, the economy slowed and sales tax revenues, which were expected to easily finance the project, shrunk. Adding to this predicament, prices for everything from rail to copper to concrete skyrocketed. At the same time, competition for these building materials erupted from emerging economies in China, India and Brazil.
The FasTracks budget soared. The original $4.7 billion dollar price tag suddenly became $6.9 billion. But that figure, according to RTD, may not hold. Its website qualifies the budget with a warning: “this number continues to fluctuate based on economic volatility.”
Tonilas calls it “the perfect storm.” Not knowing how long or how hard the storm would rage, Tonilas says RTD had to make some tough and unpopular choices. But it did not make them arbitrarily.
“We followed regional planning processes,” she says. The Denver Regional Council of Governments — DRCOG — called the shots. DRCOG, says Tonilas, looked at “growth patterns, where congestion exists and is expected to grow,” before finalizing any decisions.
Probably no choice was more unpopular than its decision to focus its light and commuter rail resources in the south, west and northeast. RTD decided that rail would be put on hold for places like Boulder and the north I-25 corridor. In its stead, Tonilas said RTD would enhance its bus service as it has on the U.S. 36 corridor connecting Denver and Boulder.
“The people who take the express routes between Denver and Boulder, they love their bus,” Tonilas says. “In fact, some of them are like, ‘I’d rather take the bus than the train, anyway.’” Perhaps some, but not all.
From her office at Thornton city hall, assistant city manager Joyce Hunt speaks calmly about the frustration she has with RTD and its decision to put her city on the back burner. What is especially troubling to Hunt is the fact that Thornton residents have been paying the same .4 percent tax to fund FasTracks as everyone else.
“Fundamentally, this was about ‘we were all in this together’ and we were all going to get something out of this,” she says. “Yes, we are all in this together. But we are not all getting something out of it.” Well, not exactly. Thornton will be getting something out of its original deal, just not what was promised.
RTD has committed to improved and expanded bus service for Thornton and north I-25 corridor residents. But without an infusion of federal money, a public-private venture that would pay for 21st century rail service or a tax increase, RTD riders in the north and northwest won’t be getting what the south, west and northeast now has until 2044 at the earliest.
All of these options are long shots, says former Thornton state legislator Val Vigil. “It’s a rough economy. Money is tight.” But even if a vote was to take place, he asks, “what’s the incentive for those people (in the south) to vote for it? That just leaves us hanging because if we can’t get a tax increase, we’re right back to where we started.”
Vigil, who now represents Thornton on DRCOG, says RTD should be held responsible for poor planning, bad decisions and the unsatisfactory outcomes that left more than a million potential riders paying for something that may not arrive for another three decades or more.
“Their estimates on sales tax collection were overstated,” Vigil says. When they knew the economy was slowing, “they made a decision to build one corridor at a time.” He thinks it would have been much smarter to build each of the spokes simultaneously instead of piecemeal.
When RTD finally puts its focus on the north and is ready to lay track, Vigil says, there’s another problem. Technology and inflation are going to have a huge impact on the costs — perhaps even a prohibitive impact.
“The northwest line was estimated at $700 million,” he says. By the time RTD sets a date to build, “it’s going to more than double. Where are we going to get the money?”
One possibility, he says, may lie in President Obama’s reelection. Should that happen and the president can get his jobs legislation through Congress, money could be budgeted and a more reasonable build-out of FasTracks could happen. But reelection or not, there are no guarantees.
Meanwhile, work is on schedule to complete RTD’s West Rail line taking commuters from Union Station to Golden by 2013. The I-225 spoke and East Rail Line, which will travel from Union Station to DIA, are set to begin serving riders sometime in 2016.