RUNAWAY TRAIN

"Unfortunately, I have to work for a living, so I don't get to go down and kick the tires the way I want to," he says. "The staff sends out the smoke signals when they see me coming into the building, so everybody knows I'm around."

By Bishop's reckoning, RTD is a fat agency--and getting fatter all the time. Its office workforce of nearly 500 people, versus 1,650 drivers and other operational personnel, represents one of the highest levels of administrative staffing in the public-transit business. One reason for the top-heavy staff, which has grown by almost 50 percent since 1990, is light rail--all the additional planning, financial, legal and public-relations tasks associated with rapid-transit development. Light rail's ability to bring economic growth to the suburbs may be under attack, but it's brought jobs to RTD.

According to a recent personnel summary, the agency now has more than two dozen people working on its legal staff, 63 in the finance department and dozens more in communications, administration and planning--as well as 200 more salaried (non-union) employees overseeing some aspect of operations. Even with the added manpower, the light-rail bonanza also gets spread around the private sector through consulting contracts. RTD's planning-and-development department is currently paying nearly $5 million for consulting services provided by various firms--including Carter Burgess, CH2M Hill, BRW and other CMAQ members--involved in planning the Littleton route or other rapid-transit corridors.

The real impetus for more light rail comes from the staff, Bishop suggests, not the deeply divided board. He cites records of staff travel expenses ($435,000 in 1994, which works out to close to a thousand bucks in travel for every salaried employee); the number of days employees spent out of the office as a result of attending conferences and the like (687 in 1993--including 107 days logged by a single traveling bus inspector, who returned to Denver mainly on weekends); the soaring budget for advertising and public relations (which tripled over four years to almost $3 million, before recent cutbacks); and other expenditures to underscore his point. Compared to such sums, RTD's recent cut in its $60,000-a-year massage-therapy program for employees is chickenfeed.

"We question the little things but ignore or forgive the much larger waste because of a perceived `public benefit,'" Bishop says. "As long as agencies such as RTD remain free from market forces of competition, they will continue to squander taxpayers' funds."

Other boardmembers say they're in favor of austerity measures but are awaiting results of a manpower study due in February. Klein notes that several recent staff vacancies have been left unfilled and that the 1996 budget is a "no-growth" budget. "We're trying," he says. "But when you're in a bureaucratic agency that's so firmly entrenched and the staff is more used to running the agency than the board, it's hard to make deep cuts."

McCroskey contends that RTD could save at least $8 million a year by cutting its staff by a third--not enough to fund the southern route, perhaps, but enough to demonstrate fiscal responsibility to the public. "If you can't even reduce the board staff when you know it needs it, then you're going to be lost when you try to do anything else," he says.

Clearly, McCroskey's feud with the board has its personal side. He has clashed with a senior staff member over his efforts to obtain public records from RTD, and he and Klein have a history of bad blood dating back to a 1992 letter Klein reportedly wrote to Romer insinuating that McCroskey had lost the Jewish vote in his district by purchasing light-rail cars from a German manufacturer. (Klein's board subsequently purchased six more cars from the same company.) Despite that incident, McCroskey says he later supported Klein's bid for the chairmanship on the expectation that Klein would cut costs at RTD.

These days McCroskey calls Klein "the most hypocritical man I know." Klein says he's merely exhibiting open-minded leadership and, despite their differences, adds that he still respects McCroskey's achievements at RTD. "I care not that he attacks me at times," he says.

Yet the most unforgivable affront, from McCroskey's point of view, may be the way the current board has taken the strategy he used to sell light rail in the first place and used it to advance their own grandiose foot-in-the-door scheme: Try it, you'll like it. Build now, pay later. The voters will have a chance to decide--but not yet.

The godfather of light rail says there's a lesson to be learned in the life and work of Robert Moses, New York's legendary public-works czar. "It was his position that you don't worry about the millions or billions you might need to complete a project," McCroskey says. "It's the few dollars you need to turn that first shovelful of earth. After that, things have a way of taking on a life of their own."

end of part 2

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