By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 2 of 2
Jon Caldara lives on Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. Every fifteen minutes or so, an RTD bus rumbles by his house. Caldara has never seen more than five people on the bus.
"Usually, there's two," he says. "We're talking about a bus that pollutes like a dozen cars, sucks up fuel like ten cars and does incredible amounts of road damage. It would be better environmentally if they just gave those two people cars. In fact, it would be better for traffic. I've come head to head with buses on streets like Arapahoe, and they just don't fit the way we live in Boulder."
Caldara, who operates a theatrical lighting business from his home, argues that most transit agencies are committed to an outmoded hub-and-spoke model of transportation, using behemoth buses designed to haul suburbanites and factory workers to a central business area--despite the fact that most commuter trips these days are from suburb to suburb. He is fond of comparing RTD's service to that provided by The Hop, a small bus powered by natural gas that circulates between Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, the university campus and a local shopping center. The Hop costs considerably less to operate, he says, yet has more ridership than any RTD route in Boulder.
Smaller is better, Caldara figures. He is enthusiastic about certain aspects of RTD's $57 million alternative service plan, which would add vans and small buses as neighborhood circulators and increase accessibility to Park-N-Ride lots, promoting suburb-to-suburb service. Yet other RTD boardmembers regard the alternative plan not as a replacement for big buses but as a feeder network for light rail, a way to bring people to the trains. "This is not just about putting down tracks; it's about getting people to the system," says Anderson.
Caldara insists that high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes on freeways, such as RTD's Downtown Express on north I-25, make more sense for Denver's rapid-transit needs than light rail, particularly since people can choose various types of HOV carriers and get off the system without difficulty. Light rail may "look better," but it isn't necessarily a cleaner deal; even by RTD's own estimates, the southern route will reduce auto emissions by only one-tenth of 1 percent.
"Light rail is seductive," Caldara says. "It's downright sexy. But it's also remarkably expensive and inflexible. It's fine for the contractors and the politicians who want to build monuments, but it's not good for people who want some help with their commute."
At present, RTD and DRCOG are studying different modes of transport in several proposed rapid-transit corridors stemming from downtown, including possible light rail, commuter rail (passenger trains using existing tracks) and HOV links. Caldara suspects the studies will reflect some committee members' bias in favor of light rail. "Let's just say some people are concerned that the studies might be rigged--like an All-Star wrestling match," he says.
The light-rail boosters on the board tend to dismiss such heresies. After all, Caldara is one of seven board newcomers elected last November, four of whom ran unopposed for their $3,000-a-year posts. With the exception of maverick Gloria Holliday, the group has been characterized as a bunch of ideologues allied with the conservative Independence Institute in Golden--particularly since two of them, David Bishop and Daniel Gallegos, have joined with McCroskey in suing RTD, seeking a $5 million rebate to taxpayers.
McCroskey, a senior fellow at the Independence Institute, says any talk of the think tank's influence on the new members is nonsense. "We did have meetings with them, and I spoke to them," he says. "But the notion of the Wizard of Oz sitting up there directing these people is baloney."
Bishop seems particularly amused by the speculation; although he is a member of the institute, he says he's paying for the lawsuit out of his own pocket. "It gave me a big chuckle when the newspapers printed those big stories last January about how ideological the new boardmembers were," he says. "All of a sudden we have `people with agendas' on the board. Well, everybody on that board has agendas. They all do."
In fact, the new members appear to have little in common aside from their shared skepticism about light rail. While Caldara argues for investing in the alternative service plan rather than light rail, Bishop questions the staggering amount of money being sought for both projects. "Nobody suggests that we're spending too much to begin with," he says. "That very seldom gets into the discussion."
Over the past year, Bishop, a research analyst at Lockheed and advocate of more transit privatization, has become a voice crying in the wilderness at RTD meetings. He periodically challenges what he calls the "rails to everywhere" crowd as to why the metro area should subsidize a transit system that, in his view, primarily benefits downtown real estate interests. Last month he was the only director to vote against the 1996 budget, after being rebuffed in his efforts to make across-the-board cuts. (The budget had already been "reduced" by 2.5 percent, but Bishop viewed the first trim as mere number-shuffling involving deferred costs of complying with standards for disabled passengers and other illusory savings.) And he has pestered RTD staff for detailed records of agency expenses.
"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