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OFF TRACK

THE AIR TRAIN TO DIA GETS STUCK IN POLITICAL TRAFFIC.

Construction delays at Denver International Airport have grounded a key DIA side project: the "Air Train," the city's sole attempt at providing efficient mass transit to the distant facility.

"Definitely the fact that we've rescheduled the [airport] opening has put the Air Train on the back burner," says Mike Dino, an assistant to Denver mayor Wellington Webb.

The $140 million Air Train was designed to alleviate concerns about long travel times and expensive cab fares to DIA--and, theoretically, to help limit air pollution generated by vehicle trips to and from the airport. But though a $500,000, fifteen-month-long study of the rail link from Union Station is due to be made public any day now, the city for now seems more committed to studying the project than actually building it.

Earlier this year, in fact, Denver backed away from a rare opportunity to apply for federal funding for the Air Train when the Regional Transportation District complained that such a request would interfere with its own bid to bankroll an electrified light-rail line to Littleton and Highlands Ranch. Last week RTD asked Congress for $117 million to extend its MAC line (scheduled to open in the fall from Five Points to the intersection of I-25 and Broadway) along the South Santa Fe Drive corridor.

The city's pullout came amid growing friction between Denver and RTD. The city wants diesel-powered trains on existing "heavy rail" tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. RTD planners prefer an electrified system that's more expensive--$330 million to $400 million--but fits better with their plans for a light-rail network in the metro area.

The city and RTD downplay the tug- of-war. But the wrangling hasn't done wonders for the Air Train. Last January, in an attempt to reassure federal officials, Mayor Webb sent a letter to Transportation Secretary and DIA godfather Federico Pena denying what he described as "various reports" that the city had derailed the idea.

But the city still hasn't figured out how to pay for it. In a January 1993 letter to Lou Mraz, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, Webb said Denver intended to pursue "a variety of sources of funding," but promised to avoid competing with RTD for so-called "Section 3" funds used for new rapid transit projects.

A year later, the city changed gears and began talking about asking for Section 3 funds anyway. "We were going, `Wait a minute, you said you wouldn't do that,'" recalls RTD planner Dave Baskett. After RTD complained, the city backed off--again leaving the Air Train in financial limbo.

Not that the city isn't spending money on the project. Even though Pena is the federal transit czar, Denver has hired the lobbying firm of Linton, Mields, Reisler and Cottone, with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., to drum up support. The city also helped pay for the feasibility study, which planners expect to unveil in the next few days. But Dino says that, more than a year after the study began, he still can't discuss funding sources. The reason: "We're trying to get the airport open."

In the past, the city has even talked about asking the Federal Aviation Administration for construction dollars. But the beleaguered FAA, says Dave Baskett, "has enough problems spending its money on what it has traditionally been used for"--among other things, helping foot the bill for DIA itself.

The city also is considering imposing parking surcharges and vehicle access fees at DIA to generate local matching funds--a politically risky proposition for an airport whose soaring costs already have guaranteed that the public will pay more for airline tickets.

RTD has other reasons for questioning the city's proposal. "If we had light rail going to downtown Denver and the suburbs and then at Union Station people had to get off, unload their luggage and get on a different technology, is that the most convenient way?" asks RTD spokesman Andrew Hudson.

RTD is "a transit agency, not an airport-access agency," adds Baskett, and the Air Train's goal of serving only DIA passengers doesn't mesh with an overall urban-transit strategy. "I guess we'd like RTD to be somewhat more supportive of commuter rail," says Dino. "Not only from downtown to DIA, but throughout the rest of the region." And despite its griping about heavy rail's cost, RTD can't afford to build light rail to the airport for now. In a time of government cutbacks and increasing competition for federal transportation dollars, the agency will have its hands full funding its southwest corridor line.

Aside from the political currents surrounding it, the Air Train has encountered little turbulence. The soon-to-be-released environmental assessment apparently has turned up no red flags, and the Union Pacific already has absorbed the cost of engineering studies.

The railroad is gung-ho for heavy rail, says Larry Smith, UP manager of commuter-rail operations. In addition to the whole system's costing roughly $200 million less, he says, diesel trains could reach speeds of 79 miles per hour compared with 55 for light-rail. And under RTD's plan, airport trains would make numerous stops. Heavy-rail trains--which the UP wants to operate for the city--would make just two intermediate stops.

City planner Terry Rosapep, who has spent months working on the Air Train, says he "doesn't feel that bad" about the city's decision not to bid for the Section 3 money in January. "We hadn't expected to submit it that early anyway," he says.

But frustration is mounting as the public, apparently uninspired by a recent RTD announcement that it plans to run express buses to the new airport from various metro-area locations, watches the Air Train languish in political obscurity.

Says Rosapep, "The biggest criticism we usually get at public meetings is, `Why are you studying this now? You ought to be building it now.'

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